PITTSBURGH -- Chicago Cubs pitcher Jon Lester claims he doesn't change anything at this time of year but no one believes his production elevates by coincidence. Lester threw his first complete game this season and even picked off a baserunner in the Cubs' dramatic 2-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday night.
The win snapped a three-game losing streak and earned the Cubs a split of the doubleheader. It also reduced their magic number to clinch a playoff spot to 12 while improving Lester's regular-season record in September and October to a nifty 26-11.
"If there was a magic formula I think you would try and share that with all your teammates," Lester said after the game. "I always feel better in the second half of the year, both with stuff and physically."
Lester's "stuff" was dynamic on Tuesday as he struck out nine, including Pirates hitters to end the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. He gave up five hits while walking just one.
"The thing that I loved was the maintenance of his stuff," manager Joe Maddon said. "He maintained it throughout the entire performance. You could see from the hitter's swings they were not very comfortable."
The Cubs haven't played their best baseball over the last few days, as it was veterans not named Lester or Jake Arrieta making mistakes, not the young rookies on the team. In Game 1 of their doubleheader, for example, catcher Miguel Montero threw a ball away which infielder Starlin Castro should have knocked down. And their veteran relievers haven't been sharp lately, either, losing four games on this road trip alone. But Lester has been there, done that. And just when he needed to show the opposition he will indeed make a good throw over to first base, he picked off Starling Marte, who tried to leave early on a steal attempt.
"It resembled (former lefty Bears quarterback) Bobby Douglas," Maddon joked. "That's what Bobby would look like throwing to first base. I was a big Bobby Douglas fan when he played for the Bears."
As Marte took off, Lester calmly threw over to first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who started a rundown which ended quickly. Remember, Lester was 2-for-3 in pickoff throws that have gone for errors this season, so showing potential playoff opponents he can make the play can't be a bad thing.
"He tried to sneak one," Lester said, smiling. "Got the play done. That's all that matters. ... As far as other teams and all that stuff and all the other things that have gone on this year, I'm not too concerned about it. Continue to vary my looks and holds and I might surprise you guys one day with an Andy Pettite move over there and surprise Rizzo a little bit, too."
Lester rolled on from there, making the biggest pitch of the night in the seventh inning with men on first and third and no outs while nursing a 2-0 lead. Down 3-1 in the count to Michael Morse, Lester threw a four-seam fastball which Morse grounded to short for a double play, limiting the damage to one run in the inning. Three batters later -- with the home crowd in a frenzy -- he struck out pinch hitter Jung Ho Kang with two more on base.
During the whole inning, as Lester put four baserunners on in a tight game, the bullpen didn't flinch. There was no movement. No one warming up. No one even stretching. At that moment you knew this was Lester's game to finish.
"That was the turning point as far as momentum," Lester said of the Morse double play. "I thought after the eighth I was done. I was happy to get the opportunity to [finish] and even better to come through for Joe and the team."
One big pitch followed another, yet Lester says he doesn't pitch any differently at this time of year? He can say it, but we don't have to believe it. When he was set to lead off the ninth inning after throwing 105 pitches, no one in the Cubs dugout said a word to him. He grabbed his bat and headed for the on-deck circle still thinking his night was actually done. After all, a 2-1 lead could use some padding and the Cubs are loaded with dangerous hitters on the bench.
"I figured they'd grab me if they didn't want me up there," Lester said.
Maddon wanted him up there and on the mound in the ninth. By that time, closer Hector Rondon was warming, but Lester would have none of it. He got the first two batters, including Andrew McCutchen, on two pitches. What was he thinking at that point in the game?
"Thank you," Lester responded. "Two quick outs really helped."
Then catcher Francisco Cervelli struck out looking to cap Lester's big night. It was a masterpiece. But Lester wants more.
"When I signed here I envisioned winning a World Series, not just playing September baseball," he said.
Maybe that's when he'll admit to raising his game. In fact, he already has.