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2017 Cubs victories revisited, May 18: Cubs 9, Reds 5

Javier Baez’ bat helped the Cubs to a sweep of the Reds.

CHICAGO, IL - MAY 18:  Javier Baez #9 of the Chicago Cubs celebrates after hitting a grand slam home run in the 1st inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field on May 18, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Cubs have loved hitting off Reds pitching for the last three seasons and this series was no different. They improved their record to 21-19, but remained in third place, two games out of first place in the N.L. Central.

It was a picture-perfect May afternoon Thursday at Wrigley Field, temperatures in the high 70s, unlimited sunshine and winds diminished from Wednesday’s gale-force adventure.

And the Cincinnati Reds pitching staff, as it has the last two seasons, proved the best antidote for the Cubs’ slump. The Cubs scored 25 runs in the three-game sweep of the Reds, defeating them 9-5 and moving back to two games over .500.

The Cubs loaded the bases on two walks and a pop-fly single in the first inning and scored a run when Addison Russell drew another walk off Reds starter Amir Garrett. That brought Javier Baez to the plate:

Baez’ grand slam quickly made it 5-0 Cubs and made it the 25th time in the last 27 games between the two teams where the Cubs have scored at least five runs. Fun facts about Javy’s slam:

That lead made things easy for Jon Lester over the first few innings. He allowed just three hits through six. Meanwhile, the Cubs were tacking on more runs. Kris Bryant added one with this long home run off the top of the batter’s eye suite in center field [VIDEO].

Three more runs came across in the fifth inning, one of them driven in by Lester, who just missed — for the second time in a week — hitting his first major-league home run. The ball got pushed toward center by the strong west wind and was caught on the warning track [VIDEO].

Lester does look much more comfortable at the plate as a hitter than when he first came to the National League. One of these days he’s going to get a fastball up, or a hanging breaking ball, and he’ll hit that first home run.

For a while it looked like Lester might become the first Cubs starter to go eight innings this year, or maybe even finish. But he ran out of gas in the seventh as the first three hitters singled, producing a run. Hector Rondon was summoned and made things worse; a double and ground out made it 9-3, and after the second out was recorded another single brought the Reds to within 9-4.

Please don’t blow a 9-0 lead, I thought.

The Cubs had chances in the sixth, seventh and eighth but hit into double plays to end all three innings.

Brian Duensing threw a 1-2-3 eighth on only 12 pitches, so Joe Maddon sent him out there to finish up and save the rest of the pen.

This did not work. Billy Hamilton led off the ninth with a single. The Cubs didn’t hold him, but a passed ball moved him to second and another hit and Joey Votto being hit by a Duensing pitch loaded the bases.

Well, now it’s a save situation with the tying run on deck. Joe certainly didn’t want to use Wade Davis three days in a row, so Koji Uehara got the call. A fly ball to left made it 9-5, but then Uehara struck out Eugenio Suarez and pinch-hitter Stuart Turner to end it and give Uehara his first Cubs save.

Truth be told, I don’t know how Uehara gets guys out with his 87 mile-per-hour fastball. It must be changing speeds and locations similar to what Kyle Hendricks does. Other than realizing that Uehara really shouldn’t pitch on back-to-back days (twice this year he’s been hit hard in that situation), he’s been quite effective, and as a former closer can step in when needed.

So to sum up: Cubs hitting, very good in this game, a pair of homers and nine walks drawn. They were 4-for-15 with RISP and could have scored more, leaving 10 on base. The nine walks keep the Cubs well in the league lead with 174, which is 4.35 per game, a pace for 705.

Not so good: relief pitching. This one should have been an easy win, but guys who should be able to shut opponents down with a big lead couldn’t do it.

Baez also singled twice and had a Manfred, so his 3-for-3 day brought his batting average up to .248. He has drawn six walks this year, only one unintentional.

Ian Happ had two more hits and is making the case to stick around when Jason Heyward returns from the disabled list. Heyward will make a rehab assignment appearance for South Bend Thursday night:

It’s not clear how long Heyward’s rehab assignment will last. Fun Happ fact:

Let’s not make too many Happ-to-Bryant comparisons, but Happ certainly is off to a fine start to his big-league career and the Cubs will have to make a decision when Heyward returns whether to go back to seven relievers (Pierce Johnson, who has yet to appear in a game since his callup, could go back) or possibly sending Albert Almora Jr., whose playing time has been reduced, back to Triple-A so he can get regular at-bats. There’s no doubt Almora can play in the big leagues, but it might be a numbers game.

Odd factoid: The Cubs have allowed exactly five runs in each of their last five games.

The Brewers, who moved into first place late Wednesday when the Cardinals lost, defeated the Padres Thursday afternoon to maintain a two-game lead over the Cubs. The Cubs pulled to within one game of the Cardinals. They could pass the Brewers into first place with a sweep of them this weekend. Eddie Butler will go for the Cubs and Paolo Espino will make his major-league debut and start for the Brewers.