With an upcoming slate against postseason contenders likely presenting a significantly more difficult challenge, the Cubs again turn to their surging ace to make a statement.
The visiting Cubs look to match a season high with a sixth consecutive win in the opener of a three-game series with the wild card-leading Pittsburgh Pirates on Monday night.
Lester (6-8, 3.26 ERA) has been a workhorse since July 1, pitching at least seven innings in all six starts while going 2-2 with a 1.66 ERA. He gave up two runs while striking out a season-high 14 in eight innings of Wednesday's 3-2 win over Colorado, becoming the first Cubs left-hander to fan more than 12 since at least 1914.
No Cub had struck out 14 since Mark Prior had 16 punchouts Sept. 30, 2004.
"You've got to figure out a way to go as deep as you can," Lester said. "It was nice for (manager) Joe (Maddon) to let me go out for the eighth, especially for a one-run game."
Lester went seven innings while allowing one run - a homer to Sean Rodriguez - and striking out seven in a 4-1 win over the Pirates on May 16. Beating Pittsburgh again would keep Chicago rolling (57-47) after it completed a four-game sweep of Milwaukee with Sunday's 4-3 win to improve to a season-best 10 games over .500.
Addison Russell homered as the Cubs forced a tie for the second wild card with San Francisco, which fell 2-1 at Texas later in the day. The Cubs and Giants, who are four games behind the Pirates (61-43), begin a crucial four-game series Thursday at Wrigley Field.
Chicago, which last won six in a row May 11-16, is 6-4 this season against a Pittsburgh team which split a four-game set at Cincinnati over the weekend with Sunday's 3-0 win. Neil Walker homered as the Pirates finished with three hits, their fewest in a non-shortened road victory since having three in a 3-0 win over Montreal on April 5, 1989.
Francisco Liriano (7-6, 2.92) hopes to limit Cubs baserunners after a so-so outing Wednesday, when he gave up three runs and a season-worst 10 hits through 5 2-3 innings of a 10-4 win over Minnesota.
Despite that rough outing, the left-hander is 3-0 with a 2.03 ERA over his last five.
"Just one of those days. It was tough," Liriano said. "You have to go out there and battle and at least give a chance to win to your team. That's what I tried to do."
The Pirates have won Liriano's last six outings, and they're used to Liriano putting them in position to beat the Cubs. Since signing with Pittsburgh in 2013, Liriano has gone 4-1 with a 2.17 ERA in nine starts against the NL Central rivals.
He struck out nine and allowed three runs in five innings before Chicago rallied for a 9-8 road win April 21. Kris Bryant had an RBI double off Liriano, but Starlin Castro (3 for 22) and Anthony Rizzo (4 for 20) haven't had much success against him.
It's unclear if Bryant will be in the lineup, though. He left in fifth inning Sunday after sliding head-first into second base and hitting his neck and upper back on Jean Segura's leg.
"I was going as hard as I can," said Bryant, who was ruled safe after a review. "I'm feeling better. We'll see what it feels like (Monday)."