Lester dazzles, Cubs magic number at 3 with 3-0 win

Forget about next week. For manager Joe Maddon and the Chicago Cubs, the playoffs already are underway.

Maddon believes that so much that he moved up his postseason team talk from Game 1 of the postseason to Thursday.

The Cubs then went out and beat Pittsburgh Pirates 3-0 at Wrigley Field. They improved to 93-66 and took a 1-game lead over the idle Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central. The Cubs also reduced their magic number for clinching the division to 3, with the St. Louis Cardinals coming to town for three games this weekend.

Jon Lester (18-6) battled his command early but recovered well enough to pitch 6 innings, giving up 3 hits.

"I'm going to do my postseason meeting today because it is for me actually the beginning of the postseason," Maddon said during his pregame visit with the media. "I'm not going to wait a couple days to say something I could say today. And that's it. We've got to go out there and pretty much free your mind and go play baseball. I have ideas I want to present to the guys.

"This will be my third meeting of the year like I've always talked about. I do the spring-training meeting. I do the all-star break meeting, and now I'm doing the postseason meeting. But I'm just choosing to do it a little bit in advance because it really is kind of like the postseason starting today."

One thing fueling the Cubs' sense of urgency is their desire to win the National League Central and avoid playing in the wild-card game, or worse yet, having to play a Game 163 of the regular season to get into the postseason.

"Done 'em both," Maddon said. "You want to avoid all that stuff at all costs. It's the seventh game of the World Series before the playoffs ever begin. That's the way I've always described it. It's not the route to go. It really can beat people up. It can really tax a bullpen. It just taxes you in general."

Lester threw 27 pitches in the first inning, working out of a bases-loaded jam. His mates got him a pair of runs in the second on David Bote's two-out, 2-run triple.

The Cubs got another run in the fourth, with Lester sliding home on a single to center field by Daniel Murphy. Lester called his start a "blue-collar" effort against red-hot Pirates starter Trevor Williams. The veteran Cubs lefty retired the final 10 batters he faced and wound up with a pitch count of 108 as he lowered his ERA to 3.32. Lester agreed that the time is now for the Cubs.

"We're fighting down to the end now," he said. "Obviously, we've made the playoffs, and nobody in that clubhouse is satisfied with that. I don't think that's an arrogance. I think we all kind of expect to win the division. That's not a knock on the other teams in our division, but we feel like that's one of our goals. Hopefully that comes to fruition this weekend. And we'll celebrate then. But to be in the playoffs four straight years for us, it's awesome."

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