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2017 Cubs victories revisited, September 1: Cubs 2, Braves 0

Remember John Lackey? He was really good on this day.

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

This win was the Cubs’ fifth in a row and improved their record to 74-60, again a season high. They led the N.L. Central by 3x games and now we can note magic numbers, since this game began September. The magic number for the Cubs to clinch the N.L. Central was 25.

Just about the time this year’s World Series begins, John Lackey will turn 39 (October 23 is his birthday).

Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field, Lackey sure didn’t pitch like a 38-year-old nearing the end of his career. He threw seven shutout innings and retired the last 16 Braves he faced, and combined with Pedro Strop, Brian Duensing and Wade Davis (28th save), Lackey helped lead the Cubs to a four-hit, 2-0 shutout win over the Braves, the team’s fifth straight win and first shutout since July 16 at Baltimore.

On a brilliantly sunny but very Septemberish day at Wrigley Field, 67 degrees with the wind blowing in at 17 miles per hour, runs were likely to be at a premium Friday afternoon. Lackey allowed a leadoff single to Ender Inciarte — a ball that dropped in front of Kyle Schwarber that probably should have been caught. (This will be important later.)

Lackey then struck out the side. Nick Markakis led off the second with a sinking liner similar to Inciarte’s ball. Schwarber apparently decided he wasn’t going to let that one drop:

That gets a 10 for style points and at least a 9 on degree of difficulty.

Lackey gave up two singles after that in the second and then... nothing. He retired Braves pitcher Mike Foltynewicz to end the second, the first of the 16 straight Braves who made outs against Lackey. Several of the outs were weak little popups, one was a line drive snagged by Ben Zobrist, two more strikeouts and a couple of ground outs.

Meanwhile, Javier Baez and Schwarber combined to produce a run in the bottom of the third. Baez led off with a walk. He’s doing that quite a bit lately. After drawing only six unintentional walks through the end of July, Baez has five since the beginning of August. Lackey sacrificed him to second and Zobrist hit a fly ball to short center.

That brought up Schwarber, who dribbled a little grounder that stopped about 30 feet from the plate on the grass down the third-base line. Foltynewicz went after it, slid while he was picking it up and threw late to first base, or so ruled umpire Manny Gonzalez.

While all this was going on, Javy never stopped running and beat the relay home. The play was close enough at first base that Braves manager Brian Snitker asked for a review, which was ruled “call stands,” so Kyle and Javy were both safe and it was 1-0 Cubs. It’s all here:

The Cubs added another run in the fourth. Anthony Rizzo doubled down the left-field line and scored on a single by Ian Happ. The Cubs got another runner on abse in the inning but could not score again in the frame.

But with the outstanding pitching, that didn’t matter. Lackey threw just 83 pitches (59 strikes) in his seven innings, and since there was a runner in scoring position with one out in the seventh when Lackey’s batting-order spot came up, it was the right thing to do to pinch-hit for him to try to put another run on the board. That didn’t work out, as PH Victor Caratini grounded out and Zobrist hit a fly to center, but I can’t argue with Joe Maddon’s choice, even though Lackey could probably have finished this one. As it was:

That’s really impressive. The last Cubs pitcher Lackey’s age or older to throw a complete-game shutout was Fergie Jenkins, who threw the 49th and final shutout of his career June 10, 1983 against the Cardinals, when he was 40 years, 180 days old.

Just to show you how baseball has changed since 1983: There have been 22 complete-game shutouts thrown in all of MLB this year.

Back to the game: Strop allowed a leadoff double in the seventh, but then recorded two groundouts and Duensing induced a comebacker to end the inning.

Davis walked the first man he faced but then got a sharp grounder hit by Freddie Freeman right at Zobrist, who started a double play. Davis then struck out Matt Kemp to end this crisply-played game in just two hours, 38 minutes, the sixth-fastest game played at Wrigley Field this year.

For Lackey’s part, it showed he still has something left in the tank, and continued this run:

And, coincidentally, he was featured on today’s season ticket:

The Cubs improved to 31-15 since the All-Star break with a +96 run differential. That’s a winning percentage of .674; if they can continue playing at that percentage they’ll win 19 more games, or 93 for the season.

One of the nice things about the contending Cubs playing afternoon games is that the teams behind them, playing at night, already know they must win to keep pace. And so the Cubs enter Friday evening’s action already four games ahead of the Brewers, who face the Nationals in Milwaukee tonight, and 6½ games in front of the Cardinals, who will play another game against the Giants in San Francisco.

The Cubs will go for their sixth consecutive victory Saturday afternoon at Wrigley, with Jon Lester expected to be activated from the disabled list to start against the Braves’ Lucas Sims.