ST. LOUIS -- Jon Lester, with eight dominant innings on Wednesday, pitched the Cubs to within one win of their first division crown in eight years. A 7-0 victory over the Cardinals that also featured a pair of home runs by Anthony Rizzo sealed a series win and at least a Wild Card berth for the Cubs, who headed back to Wrigley Field with a chance to clinch the National League Central title in front of their home fans on Thursday.
"It's been the Cardinals' division for so many years now," Rizzo said. "We're going to really enjoy it when we do clinch tomorrow or whenever it happens. We're not going to take it for granted."
The Cardinals remained a half-game game behind the Mets and one game behind the Giants in the NL Wild Card standings with their 41st loss of the season at Busch Stadium. They're attempting to become the first club since the 2001 Braves to nab a postseason berth despite a losing home record.
The Cubs, meanwhile, are assured of postseason play. They can finish with no worse than the same record as St. Louis, and the Cardinals have four games remaining against the Giants. Since the Cards would have to win all of their games to tie Chicago, that would mean four losses for the Giants, who lead the Wild Card race by a half-game over the Mets. New York also can do no better than finish with the same record as the Cubs. In other words, in the highly unlikely event that the Cubs lose all of their remaining games and the Cardinals and Mets win all of theirs, there would be a tie atop the NL Central and the loser of the tiebreaking game would be one of the Wild Cards.
Chicago can clinch the NL Central outright on Thursday with a win over Milwaukee, or if San Francisco beats St. Louis.
"They pitched really well against us this series," Cardinals outfielder Brandon Moss said. "[Kyle] Hendricks came out and threw a one-hitter [on Monday]. Then Lester came out and threw eight shutout innings. Tip your hat and move on. Not everybody is going to be that good every day. Just move on and go into a really big series [in San Francisco] and hopefully do better than we did this series."
Lester hardly labored en route to joining teammate Jake Arrieta as co-league leaders with 17 wins. The Cards mustered three singles off the left-hander, who improved to 7-0 with a 1.02 ERA over his last nine starts. St. Louis became the seventh opponent this season to be held scoreless by Lester, who now tops all Major League pitchers with 24 quality starts. He finished Wednesday with eight strikeouts and never allowed a runner to advance into scoring position.
"Everybody talked about [clinching] coming into St. Louis, and we had a chance," Lester said. "We have to focus on the baseball side when we show up to play. Obviously, it's right there in front of us. We have to try to win [Thursday]."
It looked like Cardinals starter Carlos Martinez might match that dominance early, but the bottom part of the Cubs' order gave him fits as the afternoon went along. It started with Lester's second-inning single, which plated Javier Baez to give Chicago a 1-0 advantage. Oddly, three of Lester's eight career hits have now come off Martinez.
The bottom four spots in the Cubs' order went 5-for-12 against Martinez, who struck out nine, but allowed four runs over six innings. He entered the game having allowed seven runs in his past five starts combined.
"He came out of the gates really as good as we had seen him," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said of Martinez, who struck out four of the first six batters he faced. "He had a really good rhythm, and I thought he had a really good feel for his pitches. Then [it was] just guys grinding at-bats on him, making him pay."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Battery powered: Lester isn't known for his bat, but the pitcher delivered in the third. Baez doubled to lead off the frame, and he scored one out later on Lester's single to center. Cubs catcher David Ross made it 3-0 with a two-run homer in the fifth, launching a home run 429 feet to straightaway center, according to Statcast™. Ross has joked that he won't retire after this season if he hits 10 homers. He now has nine.
"He elevated a changeup to me that I was able to hit far enough where we could get a run in," Lester said of Martinez. "Obviously, I'm the last person you expect to drive in a run. We'll take it."
Going nowhere: The Cardinals attempted to exploit Lester's known issues holding runners on, but they went 0-for-2 in stolen base attempts. Two of the three batters to reach against Lester were thrown out trying to swipe second, including Aledmys Diaz in the first inning and Randal Grichuk in the fifth. Entering Wednesday, Lester had allowed 25 stolen bases, the third-highest total in the Majors. The Cards have the worst stolen base success rate (56 percent) in the big leagues.
"I would have liked to have seen better leads and jumps," Matheny said. "I think we can have better of both. We have to push it a little bit more. We didn't have a lot of guys on base to try very often, and the times we did, we got shut down."
Said Cubs manager Joe Maddon: "If they were safe, it probably changes momentum in their way. When David is able to [throw them out], it settles everything."
Southpaws: Rizzo led off the sixth with his 30th home run, and he is the first Cubs left-handed hitter to reach that mark in three consecutive seasons. He added his 31st with two outs in the ninth, driving in Kris Bryant, and he now has 101 RBIs. He's the second Cubs left-handed hitter with multiple 30-homer, 100-RBI seasons in franchise history, joining Hall of Famer Billy Williams, who did so three times (1965, '70 and '72). Rizzo and Bryant (37 homers) are the Cubs' first 30-homer duo since Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez in 2005.
"It means a lot," Rizzo said of the 30/100 mark. "Obviously, that's what I want to do every year and bring that to the team every year. It feels good to look back on it now. It's not easy to do and I don't take it for granted one bit." More >
Welcome back: Having been activated from the disabled list earlier in the day, Michael Wacha made his first appearance since Aug. 8. It did not go especially well. Wacha, who missed time due to a right shoulder stress reaction, struck out two of the first three batters he faced before the Cubs scored three times. Bryant tagged him for an RBI triple that Grichuk couldn't catch on a diving attempt. One pitch later, Rizzo blasted his second homer. Wacha threw 28 pitches in the appearance.
"I think I was up in the zone quite a bit, but overall, [the pitches] felt really good coming out of the hand," Wacha said. "I probably didn't have the command I wanted. I'm looking forward to the next time already. It was fun getting back out there on the mound, getting that adrenaline going again."
"Let's do it. Why not?" -- Maddon, on the Cubs clinching the division at home
"It's time for us to either make or break at this point. We understand the situation we put ourselves in. We have to go on the road and execute and do what we can to get victories." -- Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong, on the upcoming 10-game road trip
UPON FURTHER REVIEW
The Cardinals were unsuccessful in trying to extend the fifth inning with the help of a replay review. St. Louis asked for a second look after Grichuk was called out on an attempted steal of second. Replays appeared to show that his hand circumvented the tag, but after a two-minute, nine-second review, the call stood to close the inning.
WHAT'S NEXT Cubs: Lefty Mike Montgomery opens the Cubs' final regular-season homestand on Thursday, facing the Brewers for the second time in as many starts. Montgomery did not get a decision in his last outing, holding Milwaukee to two hits over five innings. This is his fifth start for the Cubs. First pitch will be 7:05 p.m. CT from Wrigley Field.
Cardinals: The Cardinals will open a critical four-game series in San Francisco on Thursday behind starter Adam Wainwright, who has led St. Louis to victory in three straight starts. First pitch from AT&T Park on Thursday is scheduled for 9:15 p.m. CT.