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Cubs 3, Pirates 0: Three

Jon Lester was magnificent when the Cubs needed him most.

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Jon Lester has pitched in many, many important games in his 13-year big-league career, both regular-season and postseason.

There weren’t many regular-season contests bigger for Jon than Thursday night’s Cubs game against the Pirates. And he had far from his best stuff and struggled through a 27-pitch first inning, allowing a single and a pair of walks that loaded the bases.

I give Lester all the credit in the world after he gutted out six three-hit shutout innings, one of his best performances of the season, and the Cubs bullpen put together another fine combined outing: three shutout innings, including another save from the guy who might be the Cubs’ unlikely closer in the postseason, Jesse Chavez.

The Cubs’ 3-0 win over the Pirates, their major-league leading 18th shutout of the season, gave them a one-game lead over the Brewers with three games remaining, and reduced their division-clinching magic number to three.

After Lester got out of the first inning with a strikeout and a force play, the Cubs went to work in the second. Kyle Schwarber led off with... what the heck was this? [VIDEO]

That looked like an ordinary fly ball to deep right-center... and then Starling Marte simply let it drop in front of him for a very long single. Ian Happ singled Schwarber to second. After a pair of strikeouts, a wild pitch advanced both the runners to third.

David Bote made that wild pitch moot [VIDEO].

Bote’s second triple of the season was ripped down the left-field line and rattled around in the corner for a 2-0 Cubs lead.

Lester settled down after that and allowed just three more baserunners. He retired the last seven Pirates he faced and nine of the last 11, just an outstanding performance on 108 pitches (66 strikes). This is how good Jon has been down the stretch:

The Cubs extended the lead to 3-0 in the fourth, though they might have had more than that. Happ led off with a walk, but was thrown out trying to steal. That was followed by a double from Willson Contreras that might have scored Happ from first anyway. Lester pushed through a single to left field, but Contreras was thrown out trying to score. Jon advanced to second on the throw. Bote walked, bringing Daniel Murphy to the plate [VIDEO].

Give Lester a lot of credit. He looked good running the bases and made a nice slide into the plate just ahead of the throw after Murphy singled to center.

The Cubs had another chance to score in the fifth when Javier Baez doubled with one out. That double is worth a look [VIDEO].

This is the kind of hustle we’ve seen from Javy all year, one of the reasons he’s a strong MVP candidate. For just about anyone else in baseball, that’s a single. But Baez never stopped running and beat the throw to second base. He then got hung out to dry in a rundown when Schwarber hit a comebacker; he managed to extend the pickle long enough for Kyle to take second, but he was stranded.

Tommy La Stella pinch-hit for Lester in the sixth and doubled to left-center, but also was stranded. I mention this mostly to point out that it was TLS’ 24th pinch hit of 2018, extending his franchise record.

Give the Cubs a lot of credit for getting eight hits, three walks and three runs off Trevor Williams, who has been one of the best pitchers in the National League in the second half. That was just the second time Williams had allowed more than two runs in a start in 13 outings since the All-Star break. The offense has looked good the last two days. Hopefully, that continues.

And then it was up to the bullpen. Steve Cishek threw a 1-2-3 seventh on only 11 pitches, and might have started the eighth, but Joe Maddon seems bound and determined to get Carl Edwards Jr. “right” so he can throw in the postseason.

CJ entered to throw the eighth and immediately walked Marte on four pitches. This began to make the crowd restless, and it got worse when a potential double-play ball was botched by Bote, bringing the tying run to the plate.

Edwards got another ground ball, this one to Baez, and that was converted into a double play. You could almost feel the tension over Wrigley Field lift. Two pitches later, CJ was out of the inning on a medium-deep fly ball to center field. It wasn’t the prettiest inning he’s ever thrown, but perhaps it was a confidence-builder.

And then Chavez entered for the ninth inning, despite having thrown 33 pitches on Wednesday. Chavez seems absolutely fearless on the mound and quickly got the first out on one pitch, a ground ball to Bote. Colin Moran ran a full count and made Chavez throw nine pitches before Jesse struck him out. Jordy Mercer singled, bringing up Adam Frazier as a pinch-hitter. Frazier grounded to Anthony Rizzo... who, instead of just running to the bag at first, threw to Baez at second for the force play that ended the game.

38,415 at Wrigley Field were sent into happiness, and virtually none of the crowd had left the ballpark by that ninth inning. The full-game lead gives the Cubs some breathing room, and it’s interesting to note that the Cubs will have played three games since the Brewers defeated the Cardinals Wednesday night (Wednesday and Thursday night’s games against Pittsburgh, and Friday afternoon against St. Louis, as Milwaukee doesn’t begin play until 7:10 p.m. CT Friday). If the Cubs can defeat the Cardinals Friday afternoon, the magic number drops to two.

Incidentally, that attendance number Thursday night pushed the Cubs over the three million mark in tickets sold for the third straight year (and the 11th time overall that the Cubs have been over that milestone). The total through Thursday is 3,023,138. Figure the Cubs will have three sellouts this weekend with the Cardinals in town and a potential division clincher, about 120,000, and the final total will be around 3,140,000, a figure which would be down about 60,000 from 2017 and about 90,000 from 2016.

Cubs season-ticket holders received an email Thursday afternoon offering them tickets to a potential tiebreaker game Monday, with payment due by 11:59 p.m. CT Saturday. Perhaps by then such a game won’t be necessary.

The Cubs will look to reduce that division-clinching number to two Friday afternoon. There’s a chance of possible rainshowers, but this forecast says they’ll hold off until late afternoon, hopefully after the Cubs have defeated the Cardinals. Kyle Hendricks will start for the Cubs, and he too has been excellent during this pennant race, and Adam Wainwright goes for the Cardinals. Game time is 1:20 p.m. CT. FWIW, the Cubs do have a slightly better winning percentage in day games (.603) than night games (.570). TV coverage Friday will be via ABC7 Chicago, and there’s also a national broadcast on ESPN (no blackouts).