ATLANTA -- If the Cubs are to make a deep run at the National League Central crown, they are going to need Jonathan Lester to return to his dominant ways.
He did just that on Monday in the Cubs' 4-3 win against the Braves, as he shut down a hot offense for seven innings. He only allowed one run on three hits and struck out six batters. It was a far cry from his prior two starts, in which he posted a 14.29 ERA in 5 2/3 innings pitched.
"I think it is kind of like a bullpen guy or cornerback in the NFL," Lester said. "You got to forget about it and move on to the next one. Obviously, it was a lot longer layoff than normal [because of the All-Star break], but it got to fester and I got to think about that one for a while."
Lester moved on quickly and pushed all the right buttons against the Braves. The southpaw, who now makes his home in the Atlanta area, also become the first Cubs pitcher since Rick Sutcliffe in 1988 to have an extra-base hit and a stolen base in the same game.
According to Statcast™, Lester worked down in the zone a lot against the Braves. His cutter topped out at 89.8 mph and he got a total of 15 called strikes.
Lester said that the cutter was a big pitch for him to get back into counts against the Braves. He credited catcher Willson Contreras for calling pitches inside to right-handed hitters, as it got them to pull off the ball. He said that the location was helpful in getting out some hitters like Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis.
"I gave up a couple of hits on it with the Markakis hit and the [Brandon Phillips] hit," Lester said. "But other than that, we were able to expand in and get some weak ground balls down the third-base line, into our dugout. Usually, when my cutter is right, it is a lot of foul balls down the line."
Lester's performance continued a string of great outings from Cubs starters. The team has a four-game winning streak, and Lester is now 3-0 with a 0.63 ERA in his last four games against the Braves.
With Lester pitching well and the addition of Jose Quintana to the rotation, the Cubs have started to get their pitching staff together. They could get another boost with Kyle Hendricks nearing a return from right hand tendinitis. He pitched a scoreless outing in a Double-A rehab start on Monday.
For manager Joe Maddon, he is happy to see the team right the ship. But he knows that he will need Lester to continue to pitch well for his club to make a run at the Brewers, who are 3 1/2 games ahead in the NL Central.
"When Jon is really in a good vibe, he always finishes strong, and he finished strong tonight," said Maddon.