Joe Maddon is making all the right moves.
Maddon opted to sit embattled shortstop Starlin Castro Friday in favor of Chris Coghlan and Kyle Schwarber and the two lefties accounted for four runs as the Cubs beat the Giants 7-3 in front of 41,311 fans at Wrigley Field.
Following Friday's game, the Cubs (60-48) now have a 1.5-game lead on the Giants (59-50) in the battle for the second National League wild card.
"We just played well today," Maddon said. "Did a lot of nice things. ... Up and down, you can go through each guy and find something really good that happened."
Jon Lester worked around some jams on the mound, allowing just two runs in seven innings to pick up his seventh win of the year. Lester lowered his ERA to 3.22 on the season and has been magnificent in seven starts since the beginning of July (1.79 ERA).
As the Cubs hit the home stretch on their quest toward the postseason, their $155-million pitcher seems to be hitting his stride.
"We were waiting and we knew it was going to show up eventually," Maddon said. "In the beginning, he just didn't have everything working properly for him. He came off that abbreviated spring training where he did not have the time to get into the kind of shape that he wanted to.
"When you start and you're not quite right, that can affect your confidence and then you have to recover, which he has. And right now, he's turning into the metronome that he is. You're gonna see those kinds of performances."
Schwarber got things started for the offense with a ringing double to left-center in the first inning and came around to score on Coghlan's single.
Schwarber then drove in the Cubs' next two runs with a single through the infield in the fifth inning and scored as part of a five-run rally that also included a Jorge Soler two-out, two-run double and a David Ross RBI single.
Maddon replaced Coghlan with Jonathan Herrera at second base in the sixth inning, opting for better defense to hold onto the lead.
Theo Epstein's front office has given Maddon the freedom to mix-and-match and go bold in any given game.
"I'm always around and we talk about a lot of stuff, but it's the manager's domain to make out the lineup card and handle those relationships," Epstein said before Friday's game. "We have an open-door policy to give him a pat on the back and he knows we're always there to talk."
Maddon threw away convention again in the eighth inning when he brought in unofficial closer Hector Rondon to face the heart of the Giants order with the game in the balance. Rondon came back out for the ninth and completed the five-out save.
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Dexter Fowler closed out the scoring with a solo blast to left field in the bottom of the eighth to put the Giants away.
With the atmosphere at Wrigley Field resembling a postseason affair, the Cubs now sit in a great position, as they will at least come away from this all-important four-game series with the Giants with a split...and the potential for much more.
Lester is the type of guy who focuses only on the task at hand that day, never getting caught up in the moment or thinking too far down the line. But even he could acknowledge the importance of this series on Chicago's North Side.
"Obviously the crowd knows, you guys [in the media] know. We know in the clubhouse," Lester said. "But at the same time, you can just take the same mindset as if you're playing just another team, regardless of the standings.
"I keep saying 'grind,' but you try to grind out those games. You try to play as best you can and hopefully at the end of the day, you're on top, whether it's against these guys or the Cardinals or anybody else. We gotta continue to play good baseball."
The Cubs have finished in fifth place for five straight seasons and national analysts claim they're "ahead of schedule" in the rebuild, which isn't exactly a ringing endorsement of the team's postseason prospects for this 2015 campaign.
"It's almost a compliment. It's good to sneak up on people," Epstein said. "Maybe this is our last chance to play this unencumbered and free and sneak up on people. You always want to top what you did the year before.
"Guys are having a lot of fun. If you can't have fun being around this team, in this situation at this moment in time, you might want to look for another line of work. This is a heck of time to be associated with the Cubs and to be in Chicago."