CHICAGO — Joey Votto’s hard-hit comebacker struck Jon Lester and ricocheted toward first as the left-hander doubled over.
Joe Maddon rushed to the mound, uncertain where the ball had hit his star pitcher. But Lester got up and wanted nothing of the visit, brushing off his manager just as he waved off curious reporters after the game.
“It’s my right hand,” Lester said. “I don’t need it.”
Lester overcame the injury scare to throw seven strong innings, Anthony Rizzo drove in three runs and the Chicago Cubs moved closer to securing the NL’s best record with a 6-1 victory over the Cincinnati Reds on Tuesday night.
Lester (18-4) extended his scoreless streak to 21 innings before Jose Peraza’s RBI triple in the fifth. He allowed six hits, struck out five, walked none and added an RBI double. Lester improved to 9-0 since the All-Star break despite the welt on his right wrist.
“It could have been a lot worse,” Maddon said.
Rizzo had a two-run single in a four-run fourth and a run-scoring single in the sixth to give him 104 RBIs. The Cubs’ 96th win reduced their magic number to three over Washington for clinching home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs.
The Cubs, who wrapped up the NL Central last week, are trying to find the right balance of staying sharp while getting rest and avoiding injury before the postseason. That’s why the crowd gasped and the trainer and Maddon rushed to check on Lester.
“It’ll be fine,” Lester said. “It’s a long way from the heart.”
He retired six of his final seven batters before leaving after 97 pitches. Lester took over the NL lead in wins and dropped his ERA to 2.36, helping his Cy Young Award candidacy.
His competition includes teammate Kyle Hendricks. Maddon also has to decide which pitcher gets the ball in the playoff opener.
“If I’m the guy, it will definitely be a huge honor, especially with the staff that we have,” Lester said. “If I’m not the guy, tell me when I’m going. I’ll be there. I’ll be ready.”
After David Ross singled with two outs in the second, Lester lined a fastball off Josh Smith (3-2) into right-center. The 39-year-old Ross, who has said he’s retiring at the end of the season, lumbered from first and belly-flopped into home without a throw to put the Cubs ahead to stay.
“That’s more of a collapse than a slide,” Ross said.
Smith, making a spot start in a bullpen game for the Reds, left after allowing three hits over three innings.
The Cubs scored four two-out runs in the fourth off Wandy Peralta, who walked Lester before Dexter Fowler’s RBI single. Kris Bryant followed with a bloop RBI double.
Bryant added a diving catch in a rare start in left field as the Cubs beat the last-place Reds for the 12th time in 15 tries.
“Our situation is we’re looking at some of the younger players we brought up for September and sometimes there are painful lessons,” Reds manager Bryan Price said. “It’s hard to go through, but the only way these guys are going to learn how to pitch up here is to pitch.”
Reds: RHP Homer Bailey (biceps) felt well enough that his bullpen session was moved up a day. Price was pleased and said it’s possible Bailey will get a start or two before the season ends. “There hasn’t been any issue regarding his surgically repaired elbow,” Price said.
Cubs: RHP Pedro Strop (knee, groin) threw a simulated game without issues and is set to come off the disabled list and pitch Friday, plugging the last postseason bullpen hole. “We’re expecting to have the time where I can get at least five or six innings in the regular season before playoffs,” Strop said.
Maddon hopes to play “scripted games” to close the regular season: using relievers regardless of the situation, resting players and possibly having a bullpen game.
“We’re playing the Cardinals this weekend and there’s still playoff implications involved, and even with us there are in regards to winning home-field advantage,” Maddon said. “Hopefully, by next week it may be the time to script things.”
Cubs RHP John Lackey (9-8, 3.42 ERA), contending with Jason Hammel for the final postseason rotation spot, starts the series finale Wednesday night against RHP Robert Stephenson (2-1, 4.97).