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Cubs' Lester tries again to find groove against Nationals

CHICAGO -- For the first half of the season, Chicago Cubs ace Jon Lester proved to be nearly unbeatable.

Now, as the Cubs find themselves in the midst of a tight playoff race, Lester is struggling to find ways to win. But he knows if the Cubs are to stay in position for their third straight National League Central title, he has to find a way to lead just as he had until his recent rough patch.

Lester (12-4, 3.44 ERA) will attempt to get back on track when he takes the mound Saturday as the Cubs continue their series against the Washington Nationals at Wrigley Field.

Lester, who started the year 12-2, has not won since July 15 and surrendered five earned runs in five innings of a no-decision in his last outing against the San Diego Padres. His ERA this month is 9.00 after struggling with a 6.46 ERA in July.

For Lester, the solution is simple and points only to him as he attempts to anchor a starting rotation that manager Joe Maddon said will be key for another lengthy postseason run if the Cubs can keep things on track.

"Figure it out," Lester said after his outing against the Padres on Aug. 5. "(I'm in) a little rut right now. Keep grinding."

Lester will attempt to keep the Cubs going against the Nationals, against whom Chicago rallied for a 3-2 victory on Friday.

The Cubs won despite being no-hit for 5 2/3 innings before Jason Heyward's two-out, two-run single broke up Jeremy Hellickson's no-hitter. Anthony Rizzo drew a bases-loaded walk in the seventh inning to give the Cubs the lead.

Lester is 2-1 with a 2.79 ERA in six career starts against the Nationals.

The Nationals will attempt to bounce back after blowing the two-run lead in Friday's series opener when Nationals manager Dave Martinez managed against the team he worked for as a bench coach for the first time.

Washington's up and down season thus far has provided Martinez with a collection of teachable moments, which he said Friday has proved valuable in his first season.

Some of the disappointments have brought the biggest lessons.

Friday's loss continued a week in which Washington (59-57) has dropped three of its past four games. The stretch is proving to be part the adversity that Martinez said Friday he has been dealing with since he took over the post.

"Over the winter, you put down on paper our lineup and it's like, 'Holy moly -- this is unbelievable,' " Martinez told reporters before Friday's game, according to MLB.com. "And then all of a sudden, you don't have that lineup and we have to create things and make things happen."

Tanner Roark (6-12, 4.21) will start Saturday for the Nationals. He has won his last three outings and is coming off an impressive seven-inning performance against the Cincinnati Reds, when he allowed one run and seven hits in seven innings. Roark is 4-2 with a 4.06 ERA in seven career outings (six starts) against the Cubs.
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