CHICAGO -- Officially, the Cubs were on the road on Saturday night, but they felt right at home.MVP candidate Javier Baez drove in three runs to raise his National League-leading RBI total to 110 and Daniel Murphy hit a tiebreaking RBI double to lead the Cubs to an 8-3 victory
CHICAGO -- Officially, the Cubs were on the road on Saturday night, but they felt right at home.
MVP candidate Javier Baez drove in three runs to raise his National League-leading RBI total to 110 and Daniel Murphy hit a tiebreaking RBI double to lead the Cubs to an 8-3 victory over the crosstown-rival White Sox in front of the first sellout crowd of the season at Guaranteed Rate Field.
The Cubs now have a 2 1/2-game lead in the National League Central over the Brewers, who lost Saturday in Pittsburgh. The Braves and Yankees secured playoff berths on Saturday. The Cubs are inching closer, trimming their magic number (6) to clinch the division.
"We know what we've got," Baez said. "We just have to stay away from every other team. They have to pay attention to us, not us to them. If we do that, we should be good. We're going to battle with what we've got."
Jonathan Lester wasn't as sharp as he has been but is now tied with the Nationals' Max Scherzer for the NL lead with 17 wins. Lester also is 10-1 on the road since mid-May, although he was pitching just eight miles from his home ballpark, Wrigley Field. The left-hander improved to 5-1 in his last seven starts, scattering eight hits over five innings and striking out four.
"I couldn't get the weak contact that I was able to get, I couldn't get it at anybody," Lester said. "I tried to talk Joe [Maddon] into managing an American League game again and let me go back out for the sixth, but he wasn't having any of it."
The Cubs took a quick lead with one out in the first on Baez's two-run homer, his 34th, but the White Sox tied the game on an RBI single by Avisail Garcia in the first and Tim Anderson's 20th home run in the third.
In the fifth, the Cubs rattled off four straight hits against starter Lucas Giolito, including Murphy's double and a two-run single by Benjamin Zobrist to go ahead, 5-2. Baez added an RBI single in the ninth.
Murphy's double was key.
"That was a seminal moment," Maddon said. "When it was hit, [left fielder Ryan LaMarre] was coming in on the ball and I thought it was hit better than that ... and of course it was. I thought it was the turning point. It gave us that offensive break we've been seeking. That one went our way."
Saturday was a more normal day for the Cubs. On Friday, the Cubs got the news that shortstop Addison Russell was placed on administrative leave by Major League Baseball. Maddon couldn't tell if that affected his players, who lost, 10-4, in the series opener.
"It's hard to say," Maddon said. "You walk into the locker room and there's a different kind of buzz going on outside of the actual game. We did have to meet as a group to talk about things. We did still get in at 6 o'clock in the morning [on Thursday]. I have a lot of faith in our guys."
Lester didn't see Russell's situation as an issue.
"I would hope that didn't distract guys," Lester said. "We have plenty of other distractions in the clubhouse to take us away from baseball. I think our guys were prepared and ready. I think [Friday] was one of those days. … This clubhouse has been through enough adversity over the four years I've been here to move on from anything that goes on outside this clubhouse."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Baez at the plate: As soon as Baez stepped into the batter's box in the first inning, the "M-V-P" chants started. He responded by hitting the first pitch he saw from Giolito -- a changeup -- to left field, driving in Zobrist, who had singled, and giving the Cubs a 2-0 lead.
Baez is batting .322 with two doubles, one triple, six home runs and 13 RBIs in his last 15 road games. And he's got Lester's vote as MVP.
"For me, what puts him above everybody in that talk is his ability to play multiple positions," Lester said. "It's easy to show up every day and know what spot in the order you're going to hit and what position you're going to play. Javy's done it at second, short, third for us all year. I feel that puts a little added burden on him as far as showing up every day, not knowing where he's going to play. I think the offensive side speaks for itself. People want to nitpick that he doesn't walk but [he's batting] .300 with 34 [homers] and 110 [RBIs] -- I know the other guys are good but when you add multiple positions to a guy, that changes my vote for sure."
Baez on the field: With one out in the bottom of the first, Yolmer Sanchez singled to Baez, who made a great stop but overthrew first for an error. Sanchez reached second and scored on Garcia's single. Lester needed 25 pitches to get through that inning but got some help from Baez, who ended it with a nifty stop on Welington Castillo's grounder, making a smooth throw to first.
Baez called his throw on Sanchez's ball a "dumb error."
"I feel comfortable playing short," said Baez, who takes over as the full-time shortstop now that Russell is absent. "I just have to get my arm used to playing short every day again and we'll be good."
Said Maddon: "The one throw [on Sanchez's ball] was a little bit high but he got to that ball. He's playing at the top of his game as a shortstop in the big leagues. It's pretty impressive to watch. He's involved in everything. He's really engaged in the game, and it's a lot of fun to watch."
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
Anderson was ejected for the second time this season, after a replay review in the ninth inning of a Baez slide at second base on a fielder's choice. The White Sox challenged that Baez had attempted to interfere with a potential double play by reaching out to grab Anderson's legs, but the call was confirmed, allowing the Cubs to score an insurance run. Anderson said he asked second-base umpire Joe West for an explanation, and the conversation escalated to an ejection, which drew Renteria out of the dugout and led to his ejection.
The Cubs improved to 12-7 in Interleague Play this season.
HE SAID IT
"Let's not get that far ahead of ourselves. We've got, what, [eight] more games? We're 2 1/2 [games ahead] -- and we've got a long ways to go. … That's two good teams chasing us. We just have to keep playing good baseball. We get to go home -- even though these last three days are kind of home -- but we get to go home for the last week of the season and enjoy that." -- Lester, on the tight division race
"Of course, you'd like to be clinched by now. Who knows? Sometimes when you get pressed a little bit like this, it can make you better. I just don't want us to get fatigued. There's not a manager or a team alive that will tell you they wouldn't prefer clinching well in advance. That's what we did in '16 and when we did, I talked about running a Spring Training method the rest of the season and I thought it played out pretty well." -- Maddon
Kyle Hendricks (12-11, 3.58 ERA) will close the Crosstown Cup series on Sunday, facing White Sox lefty Carlos Rodon (6-6, 3.22). Hendricks is winless in five career starts against the White Sox, compiling a 4.10 ERA. That includes a loss on May 13 at Wrigley Field, when he gave up three earned runs over six innings, striking out six. Hendricks is coming off a win over the D-backs in which he went 8 2/3 innings, giving up three hits. First pitch is scheduled for 1:10 p.m. CT from Guaranteed Rate Field.
Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.