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Cubs 7, Pirates 1: Road meatloaf tastes good

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At last, the Cubs again won a series away from Wrigley Field.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016 Cubs were characterized by utter dominance of everyone throughout the regular season, save a three-week period in late June and early July.

The 2017 Cubs have been characterized by periods where they look almost as solid as the 2017 version, interspersed with times where they look like the worst team in baseball.

The last four games have alternated through those 2017 periods. Two of them — Friday’s ninth-inning comeback win and Sunday’s impressive 7-1 victory over the Pirates — had excellent and timely hitting and solid pitching efforts. The other two — the eighth-inning meltdown against the Mets and Saturday’s loss in Pittsburgh — featured bad relief work, defensive lapses and failure to capitalize on baserunners.

Which one is the real 2017 Cubs? Honestly, I can’t answer that question. They’ve been both. Here’s hoping the version we saw on Sunday afternoon is the one that takes over for the rest of this season. The win gave the Cubs meatloaf, a series win, for the first time on the road since late April, when they also did it at PNC Park against the Pirates. After being swept by the Bucs at Wrigley in April, they’re now 4-5 against them on the season. They’ll next face the Pirates in a three-game series three weeks from now, at Wrigley Field just before the All-Star break.

Unlike many 2017 games, it was the Cubs scoring in the first inning and holding the other team scoreless. Doubles by Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras gave John Lackey a 1-0 lead before he took the mound.

Rizzo has now led off all five games he has been in the No. 1 spot in the batting order by reaching base. In order: home run, home run, walk, single, double. Keeping him in the leadoff spot is unconventional, but it seems to be working: the Cubs have scored 37 runs in the five games he’s been leading off, and of course it’s not all Rizzo’s doing, but this much of it is: 9-for-22 (.409/.458/.909) with three home runs, six runs scored and eight RBI. It’s not all the leadoff spot that’s doing it for Rizzo. A notorious streak hitter, he’s on a 12-game hitting streak and, as for many streaks of that type, he can carry a team while he’s on it.

The Cubs made it 3-0 in the third when Contreras hit another double [VIDEO], this time with two men on base.

Contreras is 5-for-13 in his last five games with four doubles.

Meanwhile, Lackey was throwing his best game in over a month. Just when I thought he’d maybe lost it totally, he shut down the Pirates on just two hits over six strong innings. His only failure was a homer allowed to Jordy Mercer in the fifth. By then the Cubs had a 4-1 lead thanks to an RBI single by Jon Jay.

Jay had three hits on the afternoon and raised his batting average to .319. He’s been outstanding no matter what Joe Maddon asks him to do, and I’d like to see him get more playing time. Jay is also a hot hitter with seven hits in his last 11 at-bats.

Rizzo put the cherry on top of this win with his 150th career home run [VIDEO] (149th as a Cub, breaking a 14th-place tie on the all-time Cubs list with Mark Grace).

That homer, off lefthander Wade LeBlanc, was Rizzo’s seventh off a lefthander this year in just 63 at-bats. It came with Jay on base after one of his three hits, and went a long way:

Then it was up to the bullpen to finish things off. Carl Edwards Jr. threw a scoreless seventh. Encouragingly, Hector Rondon had a 1-2-3 eighth, a good sign after he had a really poor outing in the last game against the Mets. And Brian Duensing, who has been very effective this year, dispatched the Pirates

The only sour note from this one was an apparent minor injury to Jason Heyward, suffered when he tried to make a sliding catch on a foul ball. It doesn’t sound serious:

Looks like they were just being cautious with him. Hopefully he’ll be all right to start Monday at Wrigley against the Padres.

Ian Happ, a Pittsburgh-area native, gave his local family and friends something to cheer about. He completed the Cubs scoring with a two-out home run in the ninth inning [VIDEO].

That was Happ’s first major-league homer hitting righthanded after hitting seven lefthanded. As did Rizzo’s, that blast went quite a distance:

This team has been maddening (pun not intended). For a while they look really good. Then they look awful. This is why they’ve been muddling around the .500 mark, a level they reached for the 15th different time in 2017 with Sunday’s win. I keep thinking with every game like Sunday’s: “This is the one that’s going to send them on a long winning streak.”

Maybe this time I’ll be right.

The Cubs come home for a single three-game series to face the Padres, who at this writing are trailing the Brewers 2-1 in the eighth. If that score holds up the Cubs will still trail Milwaukee by 2½ games.

Jon Lester gets the start Monday night in the series opener against San Diego. He’ll face former Cubs lefthander Clayton Richard.