Rotation starting to settle into a groove

Rotation starting to settle into a groove

CHICAGO -- The Cubs' starting pitchers aren't throwing shutouts, but they appear to be getting back on track.

On Thursday, Jon Lester held the Reds to three runs over six-plus innings in a 9-5 victory to complete a sweep, the first for the Cubs this season.

"We're trending in the right direction, which is good," Lester said. "This was a good series and hopefully we can keep it going."

There's no place like home for Lester. Since Sept. 25, 2015, the lefty has given up three or fewer earned runs in all 21 of his starts at Wrigley Field, the longest streak in ballpark history. He's 11-1 with a 1.58 ERA in his last 16 home starts.

Last year, Cubs starters posted the best ERA in the National League. They were ranked seventh (4.44 ERA) in the NL on Thursday, while the bullpen was second to the Dodgers. The Cubs' relievers also are fourth in innings pitched; they were last in 2016, which is a good thing -- it means the starters are going deep in games.

In the three games against the Reds, the Cubs' starting pitchers compiled a 4.15 ERA, giving up eight earned runs over 17 1/3 innings. Both Lester and Kyle Hendricks, who started on Wednesday, posted quality starts.

Hendricks fans four over six

What Lester would like next is to be able to go deeper. The max he's gone so far is seven innings, which he's done twice out of his nine outings.

"That's the number that we all, as starting pitchers, look at," Lester said. "Seven innings is kind of the bar we need to have as far as a quality start. That allows the bullpen to set up better at the back end."

The Cubs do have eight relievers in the bullpen, but that might not be enough. They were charged with seven runs over 9 2/3 innings against the Reds for a 6.52 ERA.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon was hoping Lester would be able to finish the seventh, but the lefty gave up three consecutive hits in the inning and was lifted. Hector Rondon struggled to finish the inning, allowing two inherited runners to score and one of his own.

"Our starting pitching was pretty good [in the series], and for me, it's always the biggest part," Maddon said. "The starting pitching drives the engine. When that's happening, you have a chance to hit better just by keeping the other team down and getting your guys a chance to get in the flow of the game."

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.