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Cubs 5, Pirates 4: Nothing’s ever easy

The Cubs had to go to extra innings to put away the Pirates.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Cubs seem to be following a script these days: Take a multiple-run lead in the early innings, blow it, don’t score for what seems like forever, then pull out victory in the late innings.

That’s what happened yet again Thursday night in Pittsburgh, this time in 10 innings, with a 5-4 win over the Pirates. It was just the team’s fifth extra-inning game this year and first since a July 4 win in Milwaukee.

Rob Zastryzny, a former Cub whose only start with the team was at PNC Park back in 2016, opened for the Pirates. And Cubs hitters opened up on him, beginning with a leadoff double by Nico Hoerner. Two outs later, a line-drive single by Cody Bellinger made it 1-0 Cubs [VIDEO].

Bellinger was thrown out trying to steal second to end the inning, and in the second the Pirates replaced Our Pal Rob with Andre Jackson. The Pirates picked up Jackson for the famed “cash considerations” from the Dodgers last month. The Cubs absolutely torched Jackson when he was with L.A., hitting four home runs off him in a two-inning outing April 14 at Dodger Stadium.

And they started this evening by looking like they might do the same. Seiya Suzuki led off the second with a double and went to third on a single by Yan Gomes. Jeimer Candelario’s sac fly scored Suzuki to make it 2-0 [VIDEO].

Nick Madrigal followed with a single, then Mike Tauchman hit into a force play allowing Gomes to take third. Hoerner singled to right, scoring Gomes to make it 3-0 [VIDEO].

This looked like a game where the Cubs would pile up runs and shut the Bucs down, but that, my friends, is not what happened. The Pirates scored a run in the bottom of the second helped in part by Steele mishandling a bunt attempt for an error. Then a one-out single in the third, followed by a home run by Joshua Palacios — that one landing in the Allegheny River á la Kyle Schwarber — tied the game 3-3.

Okay, it’s only the third inning and the Cubs have hit Jackson before. But they did not on this night. Jackson threw five additional relief innings after he gave the Cubs those two second-inning runs and allowed just two further baserunners, a leadoff single by Tauchman in the fifth and a two-out single by Gomes in the sixth.

But Steele also settled down after throwing a lot of pitches — 44 — through the first two innings. He completed six innings, allowing just the three runs (two earned) and striking out six. Here’s a breakdown of Steele’s outing [VIDEO].

The Cubs bullpen then did its job very well. Julian Merryweather (seventh inning), Michael Fulmer (eighth) and Daniel Palencia (ninth) threw three no-hit innings, though they issued three walks, one by Fulmer, two by Palencia. This was one of the highest-leverage innings Palencia has thrown so far as a Cub, and even though he got himself in trouble with the walks, he got out of the inning.

Palencia got helped out by this fantastic catch by Gomes on a bunt attempt after a leadoff walk [VIDEO].

You can see that Gomes initially bobbled the ball, then caught it in his bare hand before clutching it tightly to his chest. Outstanding play.

And so, off the game went to extras. The Cubs had played 42 games since the last time they had one with the placed runner, who in this game was Tauchman. Hoerner grounded out to the right side, with Tauchman takin third. Dansby Swanson walked, then advanced to second on a wild pitch. That move, with Tauchman holding third, turned out to be very, very important.

Happ singled and when Pirates right fielder Connor Joe bobbled the ball, both runners scored [VIDEO].

Though there was just one out when Happ got his hit, the Cubs couldn’t score any further runs.

Conventional wisdom holds that when the visiting team scores two runs in an extra inning in the Manfred man era, that gives them a much better chance of winning, because they can afford to give up one run in the bottom of the inning.

That’s exactly what happened when Adbert Alzolay entered to close things. Ke’Bryan Hayes was Pittsburgh’s placed runner. A ground out advanced Hayes to third, and now you’re trading a run for an out, with a two-run lead. That’s exactly what happened when Joe hit a fly ball to Tauchman. Hayes scored to make it 5-4, but now there are two out and no one is on base.

Alzolay ran the count full on Palacios — this included a pitch timer violation — and then this happened [VIDEO].

The routine fly to left ended the game, and the win improved the Cubs’ record in one-run games to 17-15, which is truly impressive given they started the season 1-7 in one-run affairs. It was Alzolay’s 20th save of the year, making him the first Cub with 20 in two years, when Craig Kimbrel had 23 before he was traded to the White Sox.

If you’re like me, you’ve watched the Cubs wins on this road trip, all close games, and wondered, “When is this all going to fall apart and the Cubs lose?” You know what, this team just doesn’t do that. Though they have blown leads in several recent games, they seem to figure out ways to come back and score, and as was the case tonight, the bullpen has done its job. Say — maybe this team really is this good.

The Cubs’ record in August improved to 14-7 and, at seven games over .500 at 67-60, they have reached a season high and it’s also the first time they’ve been seven over since June 26, 2021. Fun fact about that day only two years ago:

The win moved the Cubs to within three games of first place in the N.L. Central, as the Brewers had the night off. The Diamondbacks defeated the Reds, so Arizona moved into the third wild-card spot, half a game behind the Cubs, and the Cubs are now ahead of the Reds by a full game in the division race (and by two games in the loss column). The best result of the Reds/D-Backs series, I think, would be a split of their four games while the Cubs win three (or more!) of four in Pittsburgh. Thursday’s win also moved the Cubs to within two games of the top wild-card spot behind the Phillies, and gave them a 3-1 record on the road trip and five wins in their last six games.

Before I move on to telling you about today’s game, a note about Sunday:

This should not surprise you. Perhaps Hayden Wesneski will start Sunday, piggybacked by Keegan Thompson. Or ... perhaps it’ll be someone else. Some BCB readers have speculated that Jordan Wicks could be called up from Triple-A Iowa, after this happened Wednesday:

As always, we await developments.

In the meantime, the Cubs will try to keep the winning going Friday evening in Pittsburgh. Kyle Hendricks will start for the Cubs against Pirates righthander Mitch Keller. Game time is again 6:05 p.m. CT and TV coverage will be via Marquee Sports Network.