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2016 Cubs Victories Revisited, July 18: Cubs 5, Mets 1

Anthony Rizzo came through big-time.

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

After having lost eight straight to the Mets — four in the 2015 NLCS, four at Citi Field earlier in July — the Cubs finally defeated them behind Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester.

The Cubs were 56-36 after this win and still led the N.L. Central by eight games.

Monday night's 5-1 Cubs win over the Mets came down to one at-bat in the third inning.

With two runners on and one out in a scoreless game, Anthony Rizzo got ahead of Steven Matz 2-0, then fouled off a pitch and took a called strike two.

Rizzo then fouled off five straight Matz offerings.

And then this happened, a three-run homer launched into the right-field bleachers, Rizzo's 22nd of the year:

It was the Cubs' first homer since the All-Star break and it left the yard in a hurry:

Rizzo, who got off to somewhat of a slow start this year, is one of baseball's hottest hitters since June 1:

Jon Lester added to the solid all-around performance of the Cubs with 7⅔ innings of four-hit pitching. He departed to a standing ovation after allowing a two-out single to Curtis Granderson in the eighth. Before that, the only real mistake he made was a leadoff homer hit by Wilmer Flores in the seventh. By that time the Cubs had added a run in the sixth. Matt Szczur doubled, advanced to third on a groundout and scored on a sacrifice fly by David Ross. Szczur doubled again in the eighth and scored on an RBI single by Albert Almora Jr. The ball got through Yoenis Cespedes' legs and Almora wound up on third, but Szczur would likely have scored anyway.

For Szczur, who's become a valuable piece off the bench, Monday was the first three-hit game of his career. I really like the way Szczur plays, always hard, grinds out good at-bats, runs the bases well and plays solid defense. He's an excellent fourth outfielder.

Along the way Monday, Lester was helped out by some good defense, including this sixth-inning snag by Javier Baez of a line drive hit by Granderson:

Baez also had two hits and is now hitting .281/.325/.456. I'd still like to see him walk more (just 10 walks in 243 PA), but he's cut way down on the strikeouts, just 24.1 percent of his at-bats. He's also tied for the team lead in stolen bases with eight (just one CS). He's such a valuable part of this team.

It was good to see Lester get back on track, particularly considering his horrific outing in New York against the Mets before the All-Star break, the worst start of his career. Had he been able to nail down the third out of the eighth, Joe Maddon might have let him go out there for the ninth, as he had thrown just 98 pitches. Pedro Strop relieved Lester and hit the first batter he faced (Cespedes) square in the back, obviously unintentional, and then struck out Neil Walker to end the inning.

With the Cubs putting that extra run on the board in the eighth, Hector Rondon, who had been ready to go in the three-run-lead save situation, sat down and Carl Edwards Jr. began the ninth. Edwards got a ground ball for the first out, then allowed two singles, which brought Hector into the game.

It took just six pitches for Rondon to end it on this slick double play turned by Baez:

The Cubs scored more runs in this win (five) than they had scored in any of the four losses earlier this year against the Mets at Citi Field -- or than they scored in any of the four losses in the 2015 NLCS against them. So there's a step in the right direction. Another such step is the revival of the Cubs' starting rotation, which had been such a strength until the skid that started in mid-June. Since the All-Star break, though, that seems to have returned:

The Cubs improved their run differential, which has been taking a beating over the last three weeks, to +148. That's still 34 runs better than anyone else (Nationals, +114) and 50 runs better than anyone else in the N.L. Central (Cardinals, +98). The Cubs maintained their eight-game lead over the Cardinals, who beat the Padres Monday night, and picked up half a game over the idle Pirates and lead them by nine. The Cubs are third in the N.L. in runs scored, but by only four, and tied for second in fewest runs allowed, by just seven.