CHICAGO -- Jonathan Lester is in a groove.
The left-hander gave up one hit over seven shutout innings on Saturday to lead the Cubs to a 2-0 victory over the Pirates at Wrigley Field. The outing follows the seven shutout innings he threw against the Mets on June 3, when he gave up two hits.
"It's been very impressive and very necessary," manager Joe Maddon said of Lester's recent success. "We needed that from him today."
With the win, the Cubs improved to 15-6 since May 18, and their starting pitchers are 10-5 in that stretch. Lester said the run is reminiscent of how well the Cubs played in 2016. You'll remember how that season ended.
"I think it took everybody a little bit to recover and get back to normal," Lester said of the 2017 season. "You come off that high of Game 7 [in the World Series] and you're looking for that high and trying to get up for every game, and it's just not there. I think it took us a while.
"This year, I feel, everybody came in with a different mentality. Everybody says, 'It's the hardest I've worked this offseason' and 'It's the best shape I've been in my life,' or whatever nonsense they want to say, but I feel guys made an effort to work on their weaknesses."
Outfielder Jason Heyward didn't want to go that far in comparing this year with '16.
"Every year is different," Heyward said. "There's new challenges, teams are different. ... I feel our execution is going well. I feel the biggest thing about this year is that we're doing a good job of turning the page, and not getting too high or too low."
The only hit off Lester was a triple by Austin Meadows into the right-field corner with two outs in the third; he then retired the next 13. Lester is now 6-2 in his last 10 starts and has given up 12 earned runs over 62 2/3 innings, for a 1.72 ERA. The lefty even executed his "Jordan to Pippen" one-hop bounce pass to first baseman Anthony Rizzo to throw out Nick Kingham and end the Pirates' fifth.
"His overall game's been really top shelf," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of Lester. "He threw another good outing today. He's been good for a long time."
The only glitch came with one out in the second, when Lester issued back-to-back walks.
"These guys give you tough at-bats -- they've given me a tough time," Lester said of the Pirates. "Today we were able to make some good pitches, and the walks didn't end up hurting me."
The Cubs gave Lester a quick 2-0 lead in the first on a run-scoring groundout by Benjamin Zobrist and a sacrifice fly by Rizzo off Kingham.
What's been the key for Lester? Maddon credits the left-hander's consistent delivery.
"I think the biggest thing is, I feel good compared to last year where I was at body-wise," Lester said. "Mechanically, everything never really synced up [last year].
"This year I feel better, my body feels better. It's not like we've reinvented any wheel or tried anything new. I feel like I'm for the most part executing pitches, and when they do [make contact], they hit the ball right at somebody. It's a little bit of luck, and I feel like I'm executing well."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Quick start: Morning rain created a slippery outfield for Pirates center fielder Starling Marte, which led to a Cubs run. Kristopher Bryant, leading off for the second straight game, was hit by a pitch and reached third on Heyward's double, which Marte missed as he slipped on the wet grass. Bryant scored on Zobrist's groundout, and Rizzo followed with a sacrifice fly for a 2-0 lead. Rizzo now has 21 RBIs in his last 20 games.
"I'm just happy [Marte] fell down right there and put us in a position to score," said Heyward, who has hit the ball hard this season but often right at defenders. "Fortunately, something good happened when I hit it hard."
• Three pitchers combined on the one-hitter, the fewest hits allowed since a one-hitter on Sept. 19, 2017, against Tampa Bay.
• Lester is the first Cubs pitcher with two consecutive starts of at least seven scoreless innings and two hits or fewer in the same season since Orval Overall did so in September 1909.
• The shutout was the Cubs' ninth of the season, tops in the Major Leagues.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Javier Baez did not start the game but was inserted defensively at second base in the ninth inning and, naturally, made the final out in style. With two outs, Marte popped up toward foul territory near the tarp along the right-field line, and Baez was able to catch the ball two steps before colliding with the brick wall.
"I'm really good seeing where I'm at on the field," Baez said. "I took a few peeks to the wall."
Said Heyward: "Great play. Sun, wind, all that stuff, him having to go that far, it was fun to watch."
HE SAID IT
"We've been playing good baseball these last 15 games. We still don't have the whole team hot. We just have to keep it going. As well as we play defense, good defense for our pitchers, I think that's what wins games, playing perfect defense. Hits are going to come." -- Baez
MITEL REPLAY REVIEW
With one out in the Pirates' first, Meadows hit a grounder to first baseman Rizzo, who flipped to Lester. Meadows was called safe, but the Cubs challenged the ruling, and after a review, it was overturned.
Kyle Hendricks will close the series on Sunday. He had trouble with his fastball command in his last start and served up a season-high five runs over five innings in a loss to the Phillies. He's also been hurt by the long ball, giving up 12 in 12 games. The problem? He's falling behind batters and trying to avoid walks, and getting in trouble because of it. First pitch is scheduled for 1:20 p.m. CT from Wrigley Field. Ivan Nova gets the start for Pittsburgh.