PITTSBURGH -- Jonathan Lester hadn't been quite the same since going into the All-Star break with 12 wins. The Cubs left-hander had gone winless in his last five starts while allowing more than a run per inning.
Lester appeared to return to form against the Pirates on Thursday, as he recorded a season-high-tying eight strikeouts without issuing a walk over six innings in the Cubs' 1-0 win at PNC Park. It was their fifth straight win in one-run games dating back to Aug. 3, moving them to 18-17 in such games this season.
"[Watching] from the side, I know it's Jon Lester. I've watched him a lot," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "But all of a sudden, it was like Jon Lester. He had this way about him today that was not going to be denied. That's what I saw. He was locked in, he'd had enough, and he went back to pitching like Jon's capable of pitching."
Maddon said before the game that he'd met with Lester sometime between his start against the Nationals on Saturday -- when he allowed nine runs (eight earned) in 3 2/3 innings -- and Thursday. Lester said the two "brainstormed" and talked about what was and wasn't working.
"When you struggle, you go back to what has made you successful," Lester said. "And you kind of sometimes, I think, forget about the other things that have made you successful. Still threw my fastball, still threw my cutter tonight. I think just better execution, better angle on both pitches."
Lester showcased his execution early by way of missing bats. After giving up a leadoff single on his second pitch of the game, Lester retired the next six batters he faced and eight of the next nine. He finished the third inning with six strikeouts, marking the first time he'd struck out six or more through the first three innings of a game since Aug. 1, 2017, per Inside Edge.
The Cubs were held scoreless through three frames, but they provided Lester with the run support needed to record the win in the fourth inning. With one out, Pittsburgh native Ian Happ connected on a 2-0 changeup from starter Ivan Nova over the heart of the plate and drove it out to right-center field for his 13th home run of the season.
"Always fun to do at home," Happ said. "Had my high school coach in the third or fourth row. Cool to see his reaction … I see the ball well here. Good hitter's eye. It's a fun ballpark. I enjoy coming back, enjoy playing in front of, well, for me, the home crowd."
Right-handers Steve Cishek and C.J. Edwards allowed one combined hit over two innings of relief. Righty Pedro Strop worked around a two-out hit-by-pitch in the ninth inning to record his 10th save of the season.
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"Our staff has done a great job of keeping us in it; of giving us a chance," Happ said. "We've had a couple comeback wins, but we haven't scored that many runs. And our guys have done a great job making sure that we keep those leads. Strop at the end of the games right now is lights out, so that's what we need."
The Cubs improved to 20 games over .500 and increased their lead in the National League Central to 3 1/2 games over Milwaukee. The Pirates lost their fourth in a row and dropped to 10 games behind the Cubs and 6 1/2 out in the NL Wild Card race.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Potential tying run stranded: After two quick outs in the fifth inning, Lester gave up back-to-back singles to Josh Harrison and Adeiny Hechavarria to put runners on the corners for Nova's spot in the lineup. Lester fell behind 3-0 in the count, but battled back to strike Nova out on the eighth pitch of the at-bat and end the inning.
It proved to be the only time in the game the Pirates would bat with a runner in scoring position.
"Every time you lose a game, it's tough. But having a game like this, in the situation that we are, we need to win," said Nova, who worked 6 2/3 innings. "We need to get W's, especially against the teams ahead of us. It's a tough one."
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Starling Marte notched a one-out single in the sixth inning. Two batters later, he broke for second base on Lester's second pitch to David Freese. After catching it, Willson Contreras popped up and lined an 85.1-mph throw to Baez in an attempt to throw Marte out at second base. Baez corralled the throw and swiped his glove on Marte for the inning-ending caught stealing. More >>
HE SAID IT
"Regardless of what you've done in the past, it's crazy how we operate mentally. The world-class kind of athlete, they want to be that all the time. So when you get away from it, it's disturbing. And then you're always looking for answers. Like I said, I know he'll rest better, and I really believe this is absolutely a game to build off because he executed so well. Everything was there tonight." -- Maddon, on Lester's performance
Left-hander Cole Hamels will take the mound against the Pirates on Friday at PNC Park (6:05 p.m. CT). Hamels is 2-0 with a 1.00 ERA in three starts with the Cubs since being acquired from Texas. He faced Pittsburgh in his debut with Chicago, striking out nine while allowing one unearned run over five innings en route to the win. Right-hander Trevor Williams will start for the Pirates.