After a disconcerting start, stability has engulfed a calm Cubs team confident that one aspect of their game will compensate for any deficiencies.
The biggest improvements during their 17-game stretch have come from a pitching staff that has either harnessed opponents with sharp starting pitching or imperfect but timely relief pitching.
The blend of sound pitching and a powerful offense capped a 4-1 trip Wednesday night as the Cubs cruised to an 11-0 victory over the Mariners at T-Mobile Park to extend their winning streak to four games and plenty of confidence heading into a 10-game home stand starting Friday against the National League Central rival Cardinals.
Jon Lester put the finishing touches on the trip by pitching seven innings of one-hit ball in his second start since returning from a left hamstring strain. Lester allowed a single to Ryon Healy with one out in the second and retired the final 12 batters.
“He’s in great shape moving forward,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He sets the pace pitching-wise.”
This was the Cubs’ first one-hitter since June 9, 2018, against the Pirates, who were limited to one hit in seven innings by Lester.
“He knows what he’s doing,” Javier Baez said. “He goes up there with a plan.”
Lester was the beneficiary of a six-run second inning sparked by a leadoff home run by Baez, who capped the rally with an RBI double.
The Cubs improved to 13-4 during their last 17 games, in which the starting pitchers have posted a 2.34 ERA. The Cubs (6-0-1) are unbeaten in their last seven series.
Manager Joe Maddon and players Jon Lester, Jason Heyward and Javier Baez break down the the Cubs' 11-0 win over the Mariners on May 1, 2019, in Seattle. (Mark Gonzales/Chicago Tribune)
That’s taken a huge load off an offense that has produced without a huge volume of production from sluggers Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo until recently.
Bryant’s four-game hitting streak was snapped Wednesday, but he smacked home runs in two of his last five games. And the large lead enabled Bryant to be lifted for a pinch-hitter in the fifth and rest his sore left leg.
Maddon said Bryant would return to the field Friday after being the designated hitter the last two games.
Rizzo hit a home run to lead off the fourth, and he is batting .341 (14-for-41) with five doubles, one triple, four home runs and 10 RBIs in his last 11 games.
Those recent contributions have supplemented the production of Baez, who hit his team-leading 10th home run to snap an 0-for-11 rut.
Contreras hit a home run in the fourth, and his eight home runs are two shy of last season’s total.
The Cubs continued their business-like approach with the knowledge that shortstop Addison Russell won’t return soon after President Theo Epstein announced Tuesday that Russell will be optioned to Triple-A Iowa for more seasoning after his 40-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball’s domestic abuse policy ended after Wednesday’s game.
“To have someone like Addi and some guys at Triple-A (Iowa) barking at the door, so that’s a good thing depth wise,” Rizzo said before the game. “It’s a good problem to have. From what I heard, Addi has accepted it well, and he’ll be ready whenever he’s called up.”
That likely won’t happen until at least the Cubs complete their homestand, but the improvements by the bullpen have created a more confident feeling heading into the Cardinals series.
The relievers’ 1.97 ERA in their last 20 games has created more options for Maddon after they posted a 9.51 ERA in their first eight games.
“It’s sustainable,” Maddon said of the turnaround by the pitching staff, which leads the majors with five shutouts. “We were able to get our bullpen back in order now going back home. This game helps to do that with a day off.
“We need to continue to pitch at this level because we’re going to face some good pitching, and it’s going to be 3-2, 2-1, 4-3 and we got to win those games.”
After a 1-6 start, the Cubs now have the results to support their inner confidence.
“We know we got our work cut out for us, and that’s the way the season will go,” said Jason Heyward, who is batting .344 since April 5.