CHICAGO -- Jon Lester will try to help the streaky Chicago Cubs open a little more space in the tight National League Central race Wednesday night when he starts against the New York Mets.
Injuries and slumps have caused the Cubs to stumble this season after they breezed to the division title last season. Chicago (78-66) is two games ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals (76-68) and 2 1/2 on top of the Milwaukee Brewers (76-69).
Lester (10-7, 4.35 ERA) will make his third start since spending two weeks on the disabled list with lat tightness and shoulder fatigue. At Pittsburgh on Thursday, the left-hander looked to be nearly back in form, tossing six innings and allowing one run and five hits. He issued a season-high four walks, though.
Lester is 4-1 with a 3.97 ERA in six career starts vs. the Mets, including a 14-3 victory in New York on June 13 when he struck out 10 and allowed one run in seven innings.
Even with Lester back, the Cubs' rotation remains in flux. Mike Montgomery will once again fill Jake Arrieta's spot in the series finale Thursday as Arrieta is still recovering from a Grade 1 right hamstring strain he sustained against the Pirates on Labor Day.
Before the Tuesday game, manager Joe Maddon said Arrieta told him he felt good after playing catch in the outfield. Arrieta still isn't ready for a bullpen session, and a return date for the right-hander hasn't been set.
It is unlikely Arrieta will face the Cardinals at Wrigley Field this weekend, but he could pitch next week against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Pitching, however, hasn't been the Cubs' biggest worry lately.
The defending World Series champions broke out for an 8-3 victory over the Mets in the series opener Tuesday night with Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ homering. Chicago had scored only 16 runs in eight previous games -- and eight of those runs came in one game at Pittsburgh when Lester was on the mound.
"It happens to every team at some point," Maddon said "It's contagious to hit as well as it is contagious to not hit.
"You got to just keep working your way through it. It's going to come back to us. We're going to start hitting again."
The biggest names at the heart of the Cubs' lineup have struggled at the plate in September.
Bryant snapped his slump in a big way with his 26th homer, a three-run drive, and a sacrifice fly on Tuesday night. In 10 previous games this month, the reigning NL MVP had six hits in 34 at-bats with no homers and no RBIs. Bryant had last homered Aug. 31 -- a two-run shot that produced his previous two RBIs.
"We were looking for that one big hit," Maddon said after the Tuesday victory. "It happened to be a home run."
Anthony Rizzo's recent numbers are almost as sour as Bryant's. The first baseman was 1-for-5 with two strikeouts Tuesday, and he has nine hits in his past 40-at bats with no homers and six RBIs.
On Tuesday, Willson Contreras made his first start since being activated from the disabled list. He hit in the cleanup spot and went 0-for-1 with three walks.
Contreras had been out since Aug. 10 due to a right hamstring strain. In 42 games from June 19 until the injury, the 25-year-old hit .299 with 16 HRs and 39 RBIs.
The Mets, virtually eliminated from the postseason, will counter with right-hander Matt Harvey (5-4, 5.82 ERA) on Wednesday.
Harvey is coming off a win Thursday over Cincinnati at Citi Field when he tossed five innings and allowed two runs on five hits.
That was only Harvey's second start since returning from the disabled list. He missed six weeks because of a stress injury in his right shoulder blade.
In his first outing after the injury Sept. 2, Harvey was hammered for seven runs in two innings at Houston.
Harvey is 1-0 with a 2.95 ERA in three career starts against the Cubs, including a no-decision June 14 -- his last start before heading for the DL -- when he allowed four runs in four innings.
New York recalled catcher Tomas Nido from Double-A Binghamton on Tuesday, but he didn't play.
Nido, 23, hit .232 with eight homers and 60 RBIs in 102 games with Binghamton. He was selected by New York in the eighth round of the 2012 draft.