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Cubs 4, Pirates 1: Clicking on all cylinders

The Cubs won this series with solid pitching, hitting and defense.

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Just when the Cubs need him most, Jake Arrieta appears to be almost back to his ace-like performance from the last half of 2015 and first half of 2016.

He threw a lot of pitches due to a couple of walks and the Pirates fouling off a large number of his offerings, but still put together six shutout innings and the Cubs had just enough timely hitting to post a 4-1 win over the Pirates Tuesday evening at Wrigley Field.

Early on, Pirates starter Chad Kuhl matched Jake. Ben Zobrist led off the first inning with a single, but was immediately erased on a double play. The Cubs put two more men on base in that inning, but Josh Harrison made a nice stop on a ball hit by Tommy La Stella that appeared headed for center field, and the inning finished scoreless.

Meanwhile, Jake was off-and-on in trouble through the first four innings. Pirates runners reached scoring position in the first, third and fourth but were stranded, and then Jake retired nine in a row, helped out by an inning-ending double play in the fourth.

But the Cubs could not generate any offense against Kuhl in the middle innings, either; at one point he retired 14 of 16.

Then Zobrist led off the bottom of the sixth:

Zobs’ blast, his 10th of the year, was just his third since the All-Star break, but second in his last four games. Since August 15 he is hitting .318/.388/.591 (14-for-44) with four doubles, a triple and two home runs, perhaps at last fully recovered from the wrist injury that occurred three months ago in Los Angeles.

And the Cubs weren’t done in that inning. Kyle Schwarber walked and one out later was doubled to third by Anthony Rizzo. TLS was given an intentional pass to load the bases, and Alex Avila singled him in to make it 2-0. That was it for Kuhl, but not all for the scoring, as Jason Heyward hit a ball sharply to left off reliever A.J. Schugel. It was caught, but Rizzo scored and it was 3-0.

That was it for Jake, who threw 97 pitches in six good innings:

That says “ace” to me.

Koji Uehara entered and served up a home-run ball to John Jaso, and after a two-out single was removed for Pedro Strop, who struck out pinch-hitter Jose Osuna to end the seventh.

Somewhat surprisingly, Strop was left in to bat for himself with two out and nobody on in the bottom of the inning. Even more surprisingly, he hit a baseball really, really hard:

The look on Andrew McCutchen’s face after that catch is priceless. “Did he really do that?” It was just the second at-bat of Strop’s career (the other one, a groundout in this April 2016 game). Also look at the way Strop flipped the bat away after he hit the ball — he thought he had his first big-league hit. Keep swinging that way and maybe it’ll come, Pedro.

Anyway, Strop went on to record two outs in the eighth after a leadoff bunt single, and then Brian Duensing was summoned to face Josh Bell, who he retired on only two pitches.

In the bottom of the inning, Kris Bryant led off with a walk and then it was Rizzo’s turn to hit a ball McCutchen’s way:

Nope, Andrew, you’re not catching that one. Rizzo’s RBI double made it 4-1; Anthony was 3-for-4 on the night and in August is now hitting .359/.432/.612 (37-for-103) with eight doubles and six home runs, with two days left to tack on some more good numbers for the month.

Wade Davis allowed a bloop single but otherwise had an easy ninth inning for his 27th save, which established a new franchise record for consecutive save chances converted, breaking the mark that had been set by Ryan Dempster in 2005-06. (Davis had previously broken Dempster’s single-season record for such things, 21, earlier this year.)

The complaint department door is shut and locked tight after this one; solid pitching and hitting when the Cubs needed it produced another series win. They’ve allowed just two runs to the Pirates in two games, both on solo homers. The win put the Pirates nine games out of first place and perhaps on the brink of being pushed out of the category of “contenders.”

The Brewers lost Tuesday evening, so the Cubs’ lead increases to 3½ games, matching their biggest lead of the season in the N.L. Central. Yes, it was the Cardinals defeating the Brewers, but by winning the Cubs maintained a five-game lead over St. Louis. The same result Wednesday, as long as the Cubs win their game, would probably be optimal, as it would put all three teams chasing the Cubs at least 4½ games behind.

The Cubs also improved to a season-high 11 games over .500, matching the high-water mark first notched six days ago, and are now 28-15 since the All-Star break. That’s only 3½ games behind the Dodgers’ MLB-best 30-10 since the break (L.A. lost Tuesday, their third loss in a row and fourth in their last six), and the Cubs’ post-break winning percentage of .651 projects to a 92-win season.

Which, all things considered, would be a pretty darn good year.

The Cubs go for the series sweep Wednesday evening with Jose Quintana on the mound facing the Pirates’ Ivan Nova.