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Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Is a struggling Cubs offense going to cost them a postseason appearance?

The first four innings of Wednesday’s game against the Pirates were not a great indicator of how the rest of the night would go.

The Cubs scored early, but then watched as the Pirates rallied to tie the game in the 8th and 9th innings to force extras before Albert Almora Jr.’s walk-off single made it a 7-6 win in 10 innings.

Though the Cubs were effective against Pittsburgh starter Ivan Nova and scored in bunches through the first four innings, the bats went quiet after the 4th, which ultimately played a part in needing one extra run to finish off the win.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon has frequently stressed the importance of early scoring over the last few days, and in the first four innings, they pushed across six runs, marking one more run than they had scored over their last six games against Pittsburgh combined.

“If we could just get on the board early, that would be very helpful,” Maddon said prior to Wednesday’s game. He went on to note that there had been early-inning opportunities in the first two games of this series, but they failed to capitalize.

After falling behind 1-0 in the top of the 1st thanks to a solo home run from Jose Osuna, Anthony Rizzo hit a two-out single and then Jason Heyward hit a go-ahead home run to left center.

Maddon spoke about the reasoning behind Heyward hitting 4th in the order behind Rizzo, saying that he wanted to put the guy with the most success against Nova in that spot. In 19 career at bats, Heyward had a .316 batting average against Nova entering the game. The only thing he hadn’t yet done was connect for a home run against him.

In the bottom of the 3rd, the Cubs added on by capitalizing on a couple of defensive miscues. David Bote led off with a single, and then Daniel Murphy followed with another when Pirates shortstop Kevin Newman couldn’t make a play on the ball. Pittsburgh had a shot at a double play when Javy Baez came up and grounded somewhat weakly to second, but Adam Frazier miffed the attempt and the bases were loaded. 

Rizzo hit a sacrifice fly for the third run, and then after Heyward popped up for the second out, Nova issued back-to-back walks to Ian Happ and Kyle Schwarber for the fourth Cubs run of the first three innings. 

“We had opportunities early to get on the board against their starters, but we permitted their starters to settle in,” Maddon said before Wednesday’s game, describing what had ailed the Cubs offense the last six games against Pittsburgh.

The Cubs seized another early opportunity in the 4th, when a two-out single and stolen base from Daniel Murphy put him in position to score on a Baez single. Later, Rizzo and Heyward both singled, and Baez scored the 6th Cubs run of the first half of the game.

“That’s what we can’t permit,” Maddon had said of wasting scoring opportunities before the barrage of runs from his offense. “If we have a chance to get on their starters early, we need to do that because they seem to get better game in progress.”

While Maddon was ultimately pleased with the win that keeps the Cubs a half-game ahead of the Brewers in the NL Central standings, he acknowledges there’s still room to grow with this offense.

“We played such a good game for the first half, and then the second half we obviously let them back in,” Maddon said. “The at bats still need to get better, but I’ll take it.”

Winning in the 10th makes the bats going quiet for five innings easier to stomach, but if the lineup had continued to string together good plate appearances like they had in the first four frames, the PIrates would’ve needed a much bigger rally.

The bullpen is certainly culpable, too, but continuing to pile on runs and hit to all fields is something Maddon has preached all season.

But for now, the Cubs can still be happy about where they are.

“Our offense has not been clicking like we had anticipated almost for a month and a half or two months, but we’re still here,” Maddon said. “And maybe after winning a game like that tonight, let’s see if we come out tomorrow nice and chill and work the kind of at bats we’re capable of.”

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