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Cubs 8, Pirates 2: A satisfying split

The Cubs’ offense came alive Thursday night in Pittsburgh.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s how I look at the Cubs splitting a series they could have won: When the four-game set with the Pirates began, the Cubs were 3½ games ahead of the second-place Brewers.

After the series split, the Cubs return home five games ahead of Milwaukee, thanks to the Cincinnati Reds’ sweep of the Brewers. The Cubs are also five games ahead of the Cardinals, who lost Thursday night. The division-clinching magic number dropped to 18.

So the Cubs’ 8-2 win over the Pirates on a rainy night in Pittsburgh was indeed satisfying.

Did I mention rain?

At last, the Pirates’ grounds crew did get the tarp on the field for the brief rainshower that delayed the start of the game by 52 minutes.

When it finally did begin, the Cubs began methodically scoring runs. They scored single runs in the first (Anthony Rizzo sacrifice fly), second (Rene Rivera squeeze bunt), third (single by Rizzo after a double by Ian Happ) and fourth innings, and the latter, you really need to watch:

Give Jon Lester a lot of credit. When he came to the Cubs it seemed as if he could do only one thing on a baseball field well: pitch baseballs. He has worked very hard on other aspects of his game. He’s become probably the best bunter the Cubs have. His fielding, while not great, has become at least reasonably consistent. He picked a runner off earlier this year. And, his hitting has developed power: of his eight hits this year, four are for extra bases (three doubles and a home run).

Lester’s double gave the Cubs a 4-1 lead. Part of the reason only one Pirates run had scored through the fifth inning was this outstanding defensive play by Happ:

Credit, too, to Rivera on that play for an excellent swipe tag.

The Cubs added two more in the fifth on a RBI groundout by Javier Baez and double by Jason Heyward, who had two hits on the night. Since August 28, Heyward is hitting .333/.378/.485 (11-for-33) with two doubles and a home run.

Lester finished this outing with six innings, five hits allowed (though four walks) and just one run scoring. That’s a really good sign, as his previous start after coming off the disabled list wasn’t nearly as good. This is pretty impressive company for Lester:

The Cubs completed their scoring in the seventh:

Albert Almora Jr. entered the game for defense in the bottom of the fifth with Kyle Schwarber leaving. I trust that was just Joe Maddon wanting to get Kyle out of there on a damp evening with the Cubs seemingly comfortably ahead.

Which makes me ask: Why didn’t he do this with Rizzo and Kris Bryant? It started raining again in the ninth inning, and while watching Rizzo stand at the plate in the top of the ninth, rain pouring off his helmet while he drew a walk, I couldn’t help wondering why Rizzo was even in the game at that point. Why not give Taylor Davis (who played first base a few times in spring training) an inning at the position, especially since his family traveled to Pittsburgh to possibly see his big-league debut?

Anyway, the complaint department really ought to be closed after this one, except for one thing. Justin Wilson was given another inning in a low-leverage situation (the Cubs ahead by seven runs) and had yet another shaky outing. He gave up a single to Andrew McCutchen and one out later, a double to Jordan Luplow that scored McCutchen. He also issued a walk in the inning and threw 23 pitches. This isn’t the kind of thing the Cubs signed up for when they traded for Wilson. Hopefully they can figure out what’s wrong with him and fix it before the postseason.

Rizzo’s two-hit, two-run, two-RBI night put him at 102 RBI for the year, which is seven short of his career high set last year. Rizzo is within reach of career highs in runs, home runs and RBI and by walking twice Thursday night set a career high in walks (79) with 22 games to go. In 41 games since July 24 he’s hitting .347/.448/.600 with 12 doubles and eight home runs. Rizzo won’t win the N.L. MVP award, but he did finish fourth in MVP balloting each of the last two years and I can see him around that spot again this year.

Incidentally, the Cubs are on pace for 613 walks this year, which would be short of last year’s franchise record, but sixth-most in Cubs history. And their current total of 704 runs puts them on pace to score 815 runs, which would actually be seven more than they scored in 2016.

So things are good as the Cubs prepare to host the Brewers in a three-game series this weekend. A reminder that the first game of the series today has been moved to a night game, the first Friday night regular-season game in Wrigley Field history, at 7:05 p.m. CT. John Lackey will go for the Cubs and Jimmy Nelson for Milwaukee.