CHICAGO -- Facing Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom on back-to-back days was going to be a good test for the Cubs' offense.
"This is what you see in the postseason is guys like this," manager Joe Maddon said of the Mets' starters.
Maddon probably didn't expect his starting pitcher to drive in key runs, though. Jonathan Lester hit a two-run single in the third inning and deftly fielded his position, but he didn't get a decision in the Cubs' 7-4 victory on Monday night at Wrigley Field. Benjamin Zobrist hit a go-ahead RBI double in the seventh, driving in Anthony Rizzo, who was credited with a double after a ball he hit down the left-field line was reviewed and overturned. Rizzo added a solo homer in the eighth as well.
"We had great at-bats against a really good right-handed pitcher -- that was really the takeaway from the night," Maddon said. "Syndergaard is that good and we kept working quality at-bats, and I really enjoyed watching that."
The Cubs improved to a season-high 24 games over .500 and own their largest lead in the National League Central at 4 1/2 games.
"We've got the best record in the National League," Lester said. "We're in a good place and Joe does a good job of maintaining our guys for this push coming up."
It doesn't hurt that this is American Legion week for the Cubs, who aren't allowed into the clubhouse until a couple hours before first pitch. There's no batting practice, it's just show up and play, the way they did as kids.
It's working: The Cubs are 19-2 in American Legion week games since Maddon implemented it in 2015.
"I love this week," Lester said.
Lester exited after six innings with a 4-3 lead, but Kevin Plawecki led off the Mets' seventh with a tying home run off Steve Cishek.
Syndergaard, who made his Major League debut at Wrigley Field in 2015, also did not get a decision. What was the Cubs' game plan against Syndergaard?
"You don't wait around," Maddon said. "That first pitch you like, you've got to get after it. If he gets deep into the count, he normally has an advantage. If they get two strikes on you, they normally have the advantage. If you're going to attack a pitcher early, it's probably the guys who are really good and there's nothing to wait around for."
The Mets seemed to take the same approach against Lester, who said they "ambushed" him with an aggressive approach. Amed Rosario singled off the first pitch of the game and Michael Conforto hit a leadoff homer -- which traveled a projected 472 feet according to Statcast™ -- to straightaway center in the second.
If there was a glitch it was that Pedro Strop couldn't finish the game, as Maddon needed to use three relievers in the ninth. The Cubs have been without closer Brandon Morrow since July 18.
"[Strop] is not an ordained closer," Maddon said. "He has not been to the Vatican and he has not received the holy oils. He's part of the bullpen. We have different guys."
Jesse Chavez struck out Rosario and Austin Jackson to end the game.
"Everybody down there with the stuff they have is good enough to close at any given moment, any given time," Chavez said. "You try to pick up your guy that day."
The Daniel Murphy effect continued for the Cubs. They're now 6-0 since acquiring him from the Nationals and inserting him into the leadoff spot. He went 2-for-4 with a walk and is batting .407 (11-for-27) with Chicago.
"It's been a shot in the arm getting Murph over here," Lester said. "He's a guy we couldn't get out and it's nice to see that the rest of the league can't get him out either. It's nice to have him in the lineup and leading off -- it just lengthens it."
MOMENT THAT MATTERED
Pitchers who rake: Maddon likes having the pitcher bat eighth and it paid off in the third inning. The Cubs trailed, 2-1, when Javier Baez doubled to lead off, and three batters later, tallied on a wild pitch by Syndergaard. Willson Contreras singled and Kyle Schwarber was intentionally walked to load the bases for Lester, who smacked a single to center, driving in a pair for a 4-3 lead. Lester was 0-for-10 with the bases loaded before that hit. More >
Was Lester upset the Mets walked Schwarber to face him?
"Absolutely not," Lester said. "This guy is throwing 100 miles an hour with a pretty good slider. I think he threw most of his sliders at 94 miles an hour. That's harder than my hardest fastball. I would definitely take my chances with the pitcher day in and day out. I closed my eyes and swung and got lucky."
Said Rizzo: "It was very unexpected off Noah Syndergaard. [Lester] had a great swing -- you can tell him that, too. He's a good athlete. You know I don't say that too much about pitchers."
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Lester seems to have gotten over his problems throwing to first. This spring, he used a bounce pass, but in the fifth inning, Lester threw a strike to first baseman Rizzo, who combined with shortstop Baez on a rundown to get Rosario. Lester's last batter was Jose Reyes, who hit a liner at the pitcher, knocking him down on the mound.
"Luckily, Reyes hit the ball off the end [of the bat]," Lester said. "Most of the time when a ball is hit back at you, it's just reaction. Fortunately, it went into the middle of my glove. Luck, again."
HE SAID IT
"We had good at-bats all day. That's the formula we want to try to mix up every single night is good at-bats, and we did a good job of making Noah battle today. He's a really good pitcher. We got him out of there in the sixth, which is a plus." -- Rizzo
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
With the game tied at 4 in the seventh against Jerry Blevins, Rizzo lined a ball down the left-field line, which was originally called foul. The Cubs challenged the ruling and it was overturned, giving Rizzo a double. He then scored on Zobrist's double. The ruling also gave Rizzo his 1,000th hit with the Cubs. He's the third to reach that mark with the club since 2000, joining Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee.
"Rizzo wins [NL] Player of the Week -- is it any coincidence?" Maddon said of his first baseman, who is batting .448 in his last eight games.
Cubs left-hander Cole Hamels (4-0, 0.79 ERA) will start the middle game of this series at 7:05 p.m. CT on Tuesday at Wrigley Field. Righty deGrom (8-8, 1.71 ERA) will start for the Mets. Hamels is on a hot streak, giving up three earned runs over 34 innings in five starts with the Cubs. He's coming off a complete-game win over the Reds in which he threw a season-high 114 pitches, so it will be interesting to see if that has any effect on him.