CINCINNATI — Jon Lester’s late-summer surge put him in position to get 20 wins for the first time in his career. The left-hander let his one chance slip away with an uncharacteristically poor performance.
No time to fume over it, though. He might be starting the Cubs’ first playoff game in a few days.
Lester struggled for the first time since mid-July as the Cincinnati Reds pulled away to a 7-4 victory on Saturday against what is likely to be Chicago’s lineup for its opening game of the playoffs.
Asked before the game if he’ll open the playoffs with the same lineup — including Lester on the mound — manager Joe Maddon said, “There’s a shot.” The Cubs will host the NL wild-card playoff winner on Friday at Wrigley Field.
For now, it’s more about staying ready and accomplishing a few personal goals, like a 20-win season. Lester (19-5) found himself rushing on the mound Saturday as he gave up five runs in only five innings, including Eugenio Suarez’s two-run homer and a pair of RBIs by Joey Votto. The left-hander hadn’t allowed five runs in a start since July 9.
“I don’t know if I was rushing, just trying to get through the game or what,” said Lester, who threw 111 pitches. “I’m more or less bummed about that more than the other stuff.”
Maddon has been getting players some rest heading into the postseason. Even so, the Cubs have won eight of 12, finishing one of their best regular seasons with a flourish. Chicago’s 102 victories are its most since 1910.
“I think we’ve been doing a nice job,” Maddon said. “I’m happy with what we’re doing now. It’s not about this. It’s about four days off (before the first playoff game) — that’s the bigger concern.”
Tim Adleman (4-4) gave up three runs in five innings as part of a rare Reds victory over Chicago. The Cubs are 14-4 against Cincinnati this season. Ben Zobrist hit his third homer in two games.
The overwhelming majority of the 30,970 fans were wearing Cubs blue and cheering for Lester to get that milestone victory.
“You know everybody in that clubhouse wanted to get him his 20th win,” Adleman said. “This didn’t feel at all like home. The place was flooded with Cubs fans. It was sweet to get the win today.”
Nobody’s been better lately than Lester. Since the All-Star break, he’d won a career-high 10 straight decisions. In September, he allowed a total of two runs while winning all five starts. Lester had allowed one run or none in a club-record eight straight starts heading into Saturday.
The Reds strung together several well-placed hits while sending him to his first loss since July 3. Lester was hoping to become the first Cubs left-hander to win 20 games since Dick Ellsworth in 1963.
Jake Arrieta won 22 games last season to help the Cubs reach the playoffs.
The Cubs have hit 40 homers against the Reds this season, the most ever by an opposing team against Cincinnati. … Dexter Fowler singled for his 1,000th career hit. … Suarez snapped an 0-for-12 slump with his first homer since Aug. 30. … Votto had three hits and drove in three runs overall. He’s batting .412 since the All-Star break. He’s trying to become the first player in the majors to hit .400 after the All-Star break since Ichiro Suzuki hit .429 in 2004. … Aroldis Chapman fanned Votto on three pitches in the eighth clocked at 101, 102 and 101 mph.
Cubs: OF Jorge Soler took batting practice on Saturday and appeared to have no problems with his sore right side that has sidelined him for a week. Maddon said he would likely play on Sunday if there was no lingering soreness.
Reds: 2B Brandon Phillips had an MRI on his sore left hand that found a deep bruise. He missed a fourth straight game.
Cubs: Kyle Hendricks (16-8) is expected to go no more than five innings as the Cubs keep him fresh for the postseason. Hendricks has allowed three or fewer runs in each of his last 22 starts since May 22, the longest such streak in the majors this season. His 1.99 ERA is the lowest in the majors.
Reds: Robert Stephenson (2-3) makes his sixth start since he was promoted in September. He gave up four runs in 3 2/3 innings of a 9-2 loss at Wrigley Field on Sept. 21.
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