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Cubs feel like the offense is on the verge of breaking through

The Cubs grew their division lead slightly on Thursday, going to a full game ahead of the Brewers in the NL Central after beating the Pirates, 3-0. The difference between the Cubs losses of Monday and Tuesday and the last two nights has been an offense that has looked more like one that can help carry the team through a crucial final series and then the postseason.

As a team, they feel like they’re clicking, and at just the right time.

On Thursday, only Anthony Rizzo failed to get a hit, but the rest of the lineup connected for eight against Pirates starter Trevor Williams, who came in to the game with a 3.04 ERA and had been riding a hot stretch of starts. The Cubs offense chased him from the game after the 5th inning.

“They were a lot crisper, absolutely,” Joe Maddon said of his team’s at bats after the game. “The at bats I thought were much better mental at bats. I thought we were more engaged mentally, and that’s what we’re looking for.”

In all, the Cubs collected 10 hits on the night. And the most important difference, Maddon said, was the effort of the bottom half of the order.

“The 5 through 9 today got some knocks. The 5 through 9 was different, and that’s obviously a good thing,” Maddon said. “We just can’t rely on the top of the order all the time. We need to get everybody engaged. That’s how you’re going to be able to spread games out a little bit and not put so much pressure on the same bullpen guys.”

Included in that bottom half of the lineup was Ian Happ, who got two hits to go with a walk on Thursday. This was after he had two hits and two walks the previous night. As sort of a catalyst for the rest of his offense, Happ might be getting on a roll at just the right time.

“I’m seeing the ball well. Having good at bats,” Happ said. “I’ve gotten the chance to play a bunch against the Pirates. I think that experience, knowing those pitchers, definitely helps, but I’m just seeing the ball well right now.”

Maddon said the same of Happ’s success against Pittsburgh, and he added that Happ has also hit well against St. Louis. He was hitting .357 against Williams prior to Thursday’s game, and he has hit .333 against the Cardinals starter for Friday, Adam Wainwright. And against Carlos Martinez, who has become a huge piece of the St. Louis bullpen, he’s at .357 with two home runs and a triple.

“He can make a huge difference,” Maddon said of Happ after Thursday’s win.

The first runs of the game came in the 2nd inning, set up by consecutive singles from Kyle Schwarber and Happ. Back-to-back strikeouts from Willson Contreras and Jon Lester brought David Bote to the plate with two outs, and he tripled through the hole at shortstop. Both Schwarber and Happ scored, and the offense continued to click the rest of the night.

“Up and down the order, every single guy that came to bat today, it was not an easy out,” Bote said. “That’s huge, being able to pass it on to the next guy, not be an easy out. Being able to compete, get that at bat, get to the next guy, good things will happen.”

Bote said that even the hitless Rizzo put together tough at bats, but was just unlucky.

“It’s the formula. We keep having good at bats, we have success. It’s pretty much what we’ve had all year,” Rizzo said. “When we have good at bats, we have good team success. It’s no secret, we know that, and it’s just a matter of grinding tough at bats.”

The three runs scored are a bit misleading, as baserunning blunders probably took away at least one or two additional scoring opportunities. Namely, Contreras tried to score from second on Lester’s single in the 4th, but a quality throw from Pirates left fielder Pablo Reyes and tag from catcher Francisco Cervelli had him out at home.

Maddon said afterward that that kind of baserunning aggressiveness didn’t bother him. At this point in the season and with this much on the line, he didn’t have an issue.

The kind of hitting the Cubs had Thursday bodes well for the Cardinals series over the weekend and the postseason to follow. As a team, their approach might best have been modeled the last two nights by Happ, who reached base seven times.

“I’m putting together good at bats, getting deep counts. That’s what I’m pretty good at, so keep trying to do that,” Happ said.

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