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The Leading Logic In Sports Handicapping

PHOENIX -- Arizona manager Torey Lovullo knows all about the pitcher his Diamondbacks will play against Saturday.

He's also more than aware that getting his team's running game going might be the key to beating Chicago Cubs left-hander Jon Lester.

After all, the two worked together closely during Lovullo's time as bench coach -- and running game coordinator -- for the Boston Red Sox, which began in 2013. Lester's biggest weakness is his hesitation to throw to first base to keep a runner close, so Lovullo worked with him to minimize opposing teams' running games.

"(We talked about) what he was comfortable doing, how he wanted to hold runners, what runners he wanted to pay attention to and what runners he didn't care about," Lovullo said. "He could control runners based on his speed to the plate and, other times, he was going to throw over, and he did."

Only now, Lester rarely if ever throws over. He's not likely to Saturday, either, as Lester (8-6, 3.97 ERA) goes against Arizona left-hander Patrick Corbin (8-11, 4.76 ERA) in the second game of a three-game series between teams that potentially could meet in the postseason.

The Cubs rode homers by Kyle Schwarber and Alex Avila in the sixth inning, a three-run eighth inning and John Lester's ability to pitch out of early trouble to an 8-3 win on Friday night, their 17th in their last 26 games. Arizona has dropped three straight and five of six.

But while Lester simply can't find it in himself to make a pickoff throw to first, it's not dramatically impacting his ability to win games. Despite allowing 44 stolen bases in 2015, the most ever by a left-hander, he responded with the best season of his career in 2016 by going 19-5 as the Cubs won the World Series last season. He also cut down the number of stolen bases against him to 28.

He is tied for fourth in the NL in stolen bases allowed this season, yet those 13 steals represent a dramatic reduction from only two seasons ago.

Lovullo thinks working with now-retired catcher David Ross, first in Boston and later in Chicago, helped Lester cut down on the number of steals against him. Ross was Lester's designated catcher with both teams.

"He probably needed someone to take him to the next level; and understands the stuff he had and what he was working with on a daily basis," Lovullo said. "David Ross steps up and guides things in a very positive direction, and Jon Lester needed that at that point in his career. And you can see what he can do now."

Still, Lester faces a couple of potentially worrisome challenges Saturday.

First, Cubs catcher Wilson Contreras is out for an estimated four to six weeks with a right hamstring strain, meaning either rookie Victor Caratini -- who has all of 11 major league games of experience -- or Alex Avila, who is a veteran but has only five games with Cubs, will catch him. As of Friday, manager Joe Maddon still hadn't decided which would work with Lester.

Second, the Diamondbacks possess one of baseball's most dangerous running games. ranking fifth in the majors with 77 stolen bases.

Knowing Lovullo as he does, Lester understands the Diamondbacks likely will be more than aggressive in sending runners.

To combat that, Maddon said, the answer is simple: "Don't let them on first base."

"I don't like pitchers to lose focus to the plate (worrying about who's on base)," Maddon said. "You've got to keep the right guys -- or the wrong guys -- off first base to control it."

All-Star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt leads Arizona with 16 steals, and center fielder A.K. Pollock, usually the No. 2 hitter, has 15 steals. Goldschmidt is 5-for-8 (.625) with one homer and four RBIs in his career against Lester and he has four homers in his last two games against Chicago, including a solo shot Friday. Pollock is 5-for-12 (.417) against Lester. The newly acquired J.D. Martinez is 0-for-4 against him.

Lester has won each of his last three decisions, but didn't figure in the decision in either of his last two starts. He allowed three runs in both, in 6 2/3 innings against the Washington Nationals on Aug. 6 and in four innings Aug. 1 in what became a 16-4 win over Arizona at Wrigley Field -- a game in which he hit his first career home run and recorded his 2,000th career strikeout.

Corbin allowed no more than two earned runs during four successive starts from July 9-26, but was roughed up for 10 earned runs over nine innings in his last two starts -- losses of 6-3 to the San Francisco Giants on Aug. 6 and to the Cubs on Aug. 1.

Corbin is 3-1 with a 5.73 ERA in four career starts against Arizona, giving up 14 earned runs in 22 innings, but hasn't faced any current Cubs batter more than six times.

Lester is 2-0 with a 4.94 ERA in five career starts against Arizona. He hasn't pitched in Chase Field since giving up two runs over seven innings on May 22, 2015.