CHICAGO — The Cubs hope to script their innings for relievers starting next week after they clinch home-field advantage through the National League playoffs and after the conclusion of their home series against the rival Cardinals.
Those plans went on hold briefly with a scary pause Tuesday night when a hard Joey Votto grounder struck left-hander Jon Lester near the right wrist by the sixth inning of the Cubs’ 6-1 victory over the Reds.
Lester, who became the NL’s first 18-game winner, squatted on the mound for several seconds before he received medical attention.
After convincing manager Joe Maddon he was OK, Lester went on to complete his seven-inning outing and give the Cubs (96-55) more momentum heading toward the end of the regular season.
The Cubs’ magic number for securing home field advantage was lowered to three, giving them more reason to feel comfortable as they improved their home record to 54-23.
Barring any medical setback, the final seven games at Pittsburgh and Cincinnati will seem like a mixture of simulated and late March exhibition games.
“My thought was to get through this week, and then become more scripted next week,” Maddon said before the game.
The plans will involve one game at Pittsburgh where relievers will be used exclusively.
That means that left-hander Mike Montgomery won’t make any more starts, but Maddon would like to use Montgomery in a relief role to see how he responds to warming up during games rather than beforehand as was required for his five starts in late August.
Montgomery said last week he would have no issues getting acclimated to a relief role after performing most of those duties before his July 20 trade from the Mariners.
“Coming out of the pen, it matters right now,” Maddon said.
The Cubs may feel the urge to stack as many effective left-handed relievers as possible should they face the Dodgers or perhaps the Giants in the playoffs.
But there’s also a need to get late looks at the Trevor Cahill, Joe Smith, Carl Edwards Jr. (who has pitched on consecutive days only once and has pitched only twice since Sept. 10), as well as Pedro Strop (who is expected to return Friday after missing six weeks with a torn left meniscus).
Meanwhile, the Cubs mastered the art of the clutch two-out single one night after Maddon had a hitters’ meeting.
Lester helped his cause when he smacked an RBI double with two out in the second to score 39-year-old David Ross from first base despite Ross’ lack of stamina as he rounded third base.
Dexter Fowler, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo collected consecutive two-out RBI hits during a four-run fourth. Rizzo increased his team-leading RBI total to 104 when he added a two-out RBI single in the sixth.
Lester (18-4) scattered six hits in strengthening his bid to pitch the first game of the National League Division Series on Oct. 7 at Wrigley Field.
Lester improved to 9-0 with a 1.46 ERA in 12 starts since the All-Star break. In 14 home starts this season, Lester has posted a 1.86 ERA.