CHICAGO -- The postseason is two weeks away, and even though the National League Central-champion Cubs are waiting for other teams to get in, pitcher Jon Lester's foot is nowhere close to lifting off the gas. Not only did Lester pitch seven robust innings to pick up his NL-high 18th win, he provided the game's first run with a rocket of an RBI double in a 6-1 victory over the Reds on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field.
Now 18-4 with a 2.36 ERA, Lester is 9-0 with a 1.46 ERA over his last 12 starts after he allowed one run, six hits, no walks, one hit batter and struck out five. According to MLB Network research, that makes him the third Cubs left-handed pitcher to win nine consecutive decisions, joining him with Jack Pfiester (10 in 1908-09) and Ken Holtzman (nine in 1967).
With the Nationals losing to Miami, the 96-55 Cubs' magic number to clinch the top seed in the NL postseason dropped to three. They're assured of home-field advantage in the NL Division Series after the Dodgers lost to the Giants later Tuesday night.
"This is the guy you were going to get when you signed him to the deal he signed," said Cubs catcher David Ross, who scored on Lester's double. "This was a guy that I know and I expected him to pitch like this. I think he expects to pitch like this. He's pitching really well and it's nice. It's just one of many guys who are throwing good on the staff."
Lester, who's allowed one or zero runs in a career-high seven straight starts, thought his stuff wasn't quite up to par to what it's been recently. Regardless, he still held the Reds in check.
"He has to be off his game almost more than we have to be on our game," Reds manager Bryan Price said. "He stays out of the middle, he's as good a fastball command pitcher [as there is in the game]. He had a fairly large zone to work with, I thought, tonight and did a good job of taking advantage of it. He didn't really give us anything with which to drive."
In a game where all relievers pitched for the Reds, Josh Smith started and allowed one earned run and three hits over three innings while throwing 66 pitches.
Once Smith exited and rookie lefty Wandy Peralta took over for the fourth, the game blew open with four runs scored. Dexter Fowler hit an RBI single and Kris Bryant's popup in short right field was misplayed by first baseman Joey Votto and went for an RBI double. Anthony Rizzo's two-run single made it a 5-0 game and helped send Cincinnati to its sixth loss in its last seven games.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Rumblin' Ross: The Cubs made it 1-0 in the second on the most entertaining play of the game, with 39-year-old Ross going first to home on Lester's double. Ross began to tire, stumbled into a headfirst slide and tapped the plate for the run. According to Statcast™, he completed the circuit in 11.82 seconds, after the ball left Lester's bat with a 107 mph exit velocity. It was the second time Ross has scored from first against the Reds this season. He also did it April 21 at Great American Ball Park, going first to third on a single by Jake Arrieta and then scoring on a throwing error. More >
"Fortunately, he completed the journey," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "I was watching him coming around third base, and it was getting kind of iffy. I didn't know if the wind just kicked up and it was pushing toward third or somebody was reaching up from the ground, the old football thing, you tripped over the line. Pretty impressive. And the slide absolutely was the embellishment on the entire play, which was really fun to watch."
Self-inflicted wounds: Peralta replaced Smith and promptly set himself up for trouble by walking his first batter, Jason Heyward, on five pitches. But the walk that really hurt him was a two-out free pass to Lester that opened the door wide for a big inning.
"In the case of Wandy, it would be inexperience," Price said. "Walking the pitcher, falling behind 3-0, you just can't do that. But he did and walked him and that opened up the gates for Fowler, Bryant and Rizzo, and that's the part of the lineup you'd like to avoid with runners on base."
Shutout bid foiled: Lester had a shutout going with two outs in the fifth, then Steve Selsky extended the inning with a pinch-hit single into center field. Next was rookie Jose Peraza, who drove a triple through the gap in right-center field for Cincinnati's only run. Otherwise, the Reds were 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position and left eight men on base. In 29 games since he returned from Triple-A Louisville on Aug. 20, Peraza is batting .375 (42- for-112) with 10 extra-base hits and 12 RBIs.
Close call: The Cubs got a scare in the sixth, when Votto led off with a hard line drive up the middle that hit Lester on his right arm, near his glove. The ball deflected to second baseman Ben Zobrist and Votto reached first on a single. According to Statcast™, the ball left Votto's bat with an exit velocity of 102 mph. Lester bent over in pain, but continued after being checked out by the Cubs' medical staff. He allowed a double to Brandon Phillips that moved Votto to third, but escaped without allowing a run. In the seventh, Lester retired the side in order, including two strikeouts, to end his outing.
"It's my right hand, I don't need it," Lester said. "All it's there for is to hold the glove. It'll be fine. It's a long way from the heart."
"You play this game to play against the best in the world. Honestly, he's a Cy Young candidate. To get the opportunity to go against him and go against that team, which has already won 95 or 96 games, is a huge opportunity for me. I just went out there and tried to make the best of it." -- Smith, on working opposite Lester
"That was just more of a collapse than a slide." -- Ross, on the culmination of his journey from first to home
WHAT'S NEXT Reds: In the 8:05 p.m. ET series finale on Wednesday, Robert Stephenson will be pursuing his first victory since being recalled this month. Stephenson gave up four runs over five innings for a no-decision in his previous outing on Friday vs. the Pirates. This will be his first career start vs. Chicago.
Cubs: Right-hander John Lackey will make his fourth start against the Reds this season in Wednesday's 7:05 p.m. CT game at Wrigley Field. He struggled in the first three, going 1-2 with a 6.38 ERA (13 earned runs in 18 1/3 innings).