"I feel more comfortable this year," Lester said. "As the year went on [last season], you could really see [manager] Joe [Maddon] open up and become more Joe. We had a little bit more fun once we started winning. That just carried over to this year. … Everybody feels more relaxed this year."
Lester has gone two consecutive starts without allowing a run and striking out nine while walking none. He's the first Cub to do so since Rich Harden in 2008.
On Monday, he breezed through eight innings, facing the minimum over his final six innings. Only a Tommy Joseph single broke up a streak of 13 straight Phillies retired. Lester subsequently got Maikel Franco to ground into a double play, then retired four more Phillies in a row before his night was over.
"That's two outings in a row of him having great command," Maddon said. "He mixed his speeds, he was throwing strikes. He's really been on top of his game. Good for him, man. It's outstanding to see him pitch that way."
Despite the roll Lester was on to end his start, Maddon said it was an easy decision to go to Justin Grimm to start the ninth. The Cubs were up 6-0, and Maddon's threshold for leaving Lester in was a five-run lead. Plus, Lester had thrown 113 pitches in a nine-inning, one-run performance against the Dodgers his last start.
"There's two things you're looking at there," Maddon said. "Is the shutout that important? That would be a personal goal as opposed to a team goal. The team goal for me there was to not have him throw many more pitches after 113 his last time out and having him spiffy the next time he does go out."
Lester's next time out, he'll be putting a three-game streak of allowing one earned or fewer on the line. He'll enter his start having not allowed a run in 16 innings. The last time an opponent scored on him was the first inning of his complete game against the Dodgers.
"My curveball's been better really since San Francisco [on May 21]," Lester said. "But I'm able to throw it for strikes and get some swings and misses. That's really helped open up my fastball and cutter."
His outing in San Francisco was three starts ago. Since then, Lester has pitched 23 1/3 innings and allowed only two earned runs -- a 0.77 ERA.
Evan Webeck is a reporter for MLB.com based in Philadelphia. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.