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All-Stars Lester, Baez end 1st half with aplomb

MLB.com @CarrieMuskat

SAN DIEGO -- All-Stars Jon Lester and Javier Baez both closed the first half on high notes, as did the Cubs. Lester picked up his 12th win and Baez raised his league-leading RBI total to 72 in a 7-4 victory on Sunday over the Padres at Petco Park to help the Cubs finish the first half with the best record in the National League at 55-38.

"I feel we've been playing really good baseball for a while," Lester said of the Cubs, who have a 2 1/2-game lead in the Central Division. "We were able to gain some ground this weekend on our end so I think the biggest thing is keeping your head down and keep plodding ahead. You can't worry about other teams and what they're doing right now."

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SAN DIEGO -- All-Stars Jon Lester and Javier Baez both closed the first half on high notes, as did the Cubs. Lester picked up his 12th win and Baez raised his league-leading RBI total to 72 in a 7-4 victory on Sunday over the Padres at Petco Park to help the Cubs finish the first half with the best record in the National League at 55-38.

"I feel we've been playing really good baseball for a while," Lester said of the Cubs, who have a 2 1/2-game lead in the Central Division. "We were able to gain some ground this weekend on our end so I think the biggest thing is keeping your head down and keep plodding ahead. You can't worry about other teams and what they're doing right now."

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In 2016, when the Cubs won the World Series, they were 53-35 at the break and the Giants (57-33) had the best record in the NL. Sunday's win boosted the Cubs to 17 games over .500 and marked the third time in team history they've totaled at least 55 wins prior to the All-Star Game (also 1969 and 2008).

"I like the way we're playing baseball right now," manager Joe Maddon said.

Lester will attend the All-Star festivities at Nationals Park, but won't pitch. He got his work in Sunday, striking out seven over 5 1/3 innings. The only miscue came in the Padres' fourth when Christian Villanueva hit his 19th home run against his former teammate. The lefty finished the first half with a 2.58 ERA, which ranked among the top five in the league.

"I've been fortunate," Lester said. "I've been on the good side of the baseball gods in the first half. I will definitely take that."

In his last 12 outings, Lester is 10-1 with a 2.45 ERA, and the Cubs have gone 16-3 in his 19 starts.

"I feel there's been some games when I've thrown the ball really well and games when I haven't, and still had some good fortune along the way," Lester said. "I feel our bullpen has really picked me up in situations like today, and I do leave runners on and there's minimal damage. That's huge. That can really change a starting pitcher's season.

"I'm happy with where I'm at, I'm happy with the break and look forward to the break and come back and be ready to go."

Video: CHC@SD: Maddon praises Norwood, Bote in 7-4 victory

Rookies James Norwood and David Bote gave the Cubs a huge lift. The Padres loaded the bases against Lester with one out in the sixth and Maddon called on Norwood, who did walk in a run, but limited the damage.

"Don't underestimate the contributions of James Norwood or David Bote," Maddon said. "Those two guys might have been the stars of the game."

Video: CHC@SD: Bote makes incredible diving backhanded stop

Bote drew a walk and scored a run and made some impressive plays at third base, which was pretty good, considering he caught a 6 a.m. CT flight and landed in San Diego at 11 a.m. PT for the day game.

"I don't know how to explain it, other than that's just what I do," Bote said. "I come here and I'm ready to go, sleep, or no sleep. I take pride in winning and what we're trying to do here."

Lester appreciated it. He's the eighth pitcher in Cubs history to reach 12 wins by the break, most recently accomplished by Jake Arrieta (12 in 2016) and is unbeaten in his last nine starts.

Baez, who will compete in the Home Run Derby on Monday and start at second for the NL team on Tuesday, smacked an RBI single in a three-run first while Jason Heyward hit a two-run single in the second for the Cubs.

Video: CHC@SD: Heyward hits 2-run single to pad early lead

Lester, Baez, catcher Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber packed their red, white and blue All-Star bags on Sunday to head to Washington.

"As a group, I love the fact everybody was engaged on the game right before the break," Maddon said. "It's tough to come out west and to get a 4-2 road trip, I'll take it."

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Groovy:
Anthony Rizzo, leading off for the third straight game, beat the defensive shift with a single to left to open the game and Kris Bryant then walked. One out later, Baez and Addison Russell each hit RBI singles to take a 2-0 lead, and another run scored on Ben Zobrist's groundout. Baez is the first Cubs middle infielder to reach 72 RBIs prior to the All-Star break since Ernie Banks had 76 in 1960. Baez ended the first half riding a five-game hitting streak. He batted .292 in that stretch.

Video: CHC@SD: Baez singles home Rizzo to open the scoring

Oops: Bote, added to the roster Sunday for Albert Almora Jr., who had to attend to a family matter, walked to open the Cubs fourth. Bote then stole second and reached third on a throwing error by catcher Austin Hedges before scoring on Rizzo's sacrifice fly. It got messier for the Padres. Bryant hit a infield dribbler that Hedges scooped up but then overthrew first for an error. Right fielder Hunter Renfroe tried to get Bryant at second but his throw sailed and Bryant reached third on the miscue.

Bote has done well every time he's been called up.

"Any good team, any good organization, that's kind of the storyline," Lester said. "You're going to have bumps and bruises throughout the year and the guys who are able to come up and fill those holes can definitely fill the void when needed. These guys have done a great job."

SOUND SMART
Maddon wasn't sure if Rizzo would lead off on Thursday when the Cubs begin the second half. He may want to think about it. Rizzo had two hits Sunday and was batting .328 with six home runs and 15 RBIs in 19 games at the top of the order.

Video: CHC@SD: Rizzo drives in Bote with sac fly in the 4th

YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
How well are things going for Baez? In the seventh, the Padres had a runner at first and one out and Baez booted Villanueva's grounder. But the ball rolled to second so shortstop Russell picked it up for the force there and then threw to first for an inning-ending double play.

Video: CHC@SD: Baez, Cubs benefit from lucky bounce on DP

HE SAID IT
"They go home, nice little stretch, chill a little bit and feel good about themselves when they come back here post break." -- Maddon

UP NEXT
Kyle Hendricks will open the second half on Thursday night against the Cardinals. Hendricks closed the first half with a win over the Padres, and has gone at least five innings in 18 of his 19 starts this season. He's given up three earned runs or less in 15 of those games. The downside is that Hendricks has served up 17 home runs, matching his career-high set in 2015 and '17. First pitch Thursday night will be 6:05 p.m. CT from Wrigley Field.

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.

Chicago Cubs, Javier Baez, Jon Lester