Lee belted his 40th home run and hit an RBI single to back a gutty performance by Glendon Rusch and power the Chicago Cubs to a 5-2 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on Tuesday.
"Birthdays have been pretty good to me," Lee said. "I think that's the third year in a row I've hit a home run on my birthday, so I look forward to my birthday."
He's right. It is the third straight year Lee has homered on his birthday. Must be the cake.
Rusch had reason to celebrate. The left-hander retired the first 18 batters he faced, the longest no-hit stretch to start a game for a Cubs pitcher this season, before David Eckstein led off the Cardinals' seventh with a clean single to center.
"He threw an excellent game," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. "He was mixing speeds and pitched inside more than he had been. It was good and kept them honest. You're always hoping for a no-hitter when a guy goes that deep in a ballgame. We figured it'd be Eckstein who would break it up. He's a good little ballplayer. It's hard to corral him."
"I just found a good spot to hit it," Eckstein said. "I didn't hit it that great. It just found a hole."
Abraham Nunez hit an infield single with two outs in the Cardinals' eighth that deflected off Rusch's leg, and scored on Hector Luna's double to end Rusch's bid for a shutout. John Gall added an RBI single to chase Rusch (6-8). He won for the first time since June 2, and was 0-4 since moving back into the mix in mid August.
And he was aware of the potential no-hitter.
"I was, when I went out in the seventh," Rusch said. "That's why it's tough to do that. You still have a lot of outs to go even when you get to that point in the game.
"I don't think it's possible to keep it off your mind," he said. "I think any starting pitcher would tell you if they're at that point in the game -- seventh, eighth, ninth inning -- you know what's going on."
Rusch knew. Lee didn't.
"The way Glendon pitches, he works so quick, I didn't realize he had a no-hitter until the sixth inning, maybe the seventh," Lee said. "Then I started rooting for him. I saw Eckstein come to the plate and thought if anyone was going to break it up it was going to be him. Glendon pitched a big game for us and it was a huge lift for us."
It wasn't just big for the Cubs. It was big for Rusch.
"It's been frustrating for me since I've come back in the rotation and haven't performed well," he said. "It doesn't bother anybody more than me. It's nice to get on track better today and throw the ball better."
The Cardinals were impressed.
"It was one of the most dominant [performances], without a doubt," Eckstein said. "His location was unbelievable. He never made a mistake. He did an unbelievable job out there. I give him a lot of credit."
Lee hit an RBI single in the first and his 40th home run with one out in the third to raise his season total to 97 RBIs. He is closing in on both his career high of 98 RBIs, set last year, as well as becoming the first Cub to score 100 runs, drive in 100 runs, hit 40 doubles and 40 homers.
The National League's leading hitter with a .343 average, Lee already has 43 doubles this year. Tuesday was his 30th birthday.
"He was always a 30-[homer] man, and 30-something, and 40 is right around the corner from 30," Baker said. "I'm just glad we have him. It was one of the better trades in Cubs history. The guy comes to play every day and goes about his business and does his job."
"It's been a good season," Lee said. "I'm satisfied with the way I've played this season. I'm trying to finish strong and, along with the team, we're trying to finish strong to take something positive into the offseason."
Rusch can do that, too, if he keeps pitching inside the way he did on Tuesday.
"I think overall for the most part, I had command of the fastball on both sides pretty good and tried to stay ahead the best I could," he said.
After Lee hit his RBI single in the first, he scored on Nomar Garciaparra's single to make it 2-0. Lee then homered to straightaway center with one out in the third, off Cardinals starter Matt Morris (14-7).
"The Cubs, the last handful of times I've pitched against them, have taken a good approach against me and gotten the better of me," Morris said.
With two outs in the Chicago fourth, Jerry Hairston and Neifi Perez each doubled to make it 4-0. Corey Patterson made it 5-0 with a leadoff homer in the sixth, his 13th, off Randy Flores.
The Cardinals are running away with the Central Division, and are planning their playoff rotation. The Cubs are battling to get back to .500.
"Right now, they want victories, and we need them," Baker said. "That's the bottom line."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.