There is a quiet confidence brewing the Cubs’ clubhouse, which might seem surprising given their sub-par record.
But after beating the Pittsburgh Pirates, 6-3, on Friday, the Cubs are coming together in all facets of the game. Friday marked their 11th win of the month, which already matches their total from May, and their 18-13 record since May 17 is the best in the National League.
“It’s the nicest I’ve felt about this team since I’ve been here,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “Everyone is kind of starting to expect to win games now. We always do, but everyone is starting to come in with that extra swagger I guess you could say.”
Turnaround seasons from Rizzo, who hit a two-run double with the bases loaded in the third inning, and shortstop Starlin Castro, who followed with a three-run homer for a 5-0 lead, has been an important part of the Cubs’ recent stretch of good play.
The Cubs (31-40) put Pirates right-hander Charlie Morton (4-8) in a tough spot in the third, and it all started with the pitcher spot in the lineup. Starting pitcher Edwin Jackson hit a one-out single to start a stretch of five consecutive Cubs batters to reach base.
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Luis Valbuena followed with a single to left field, and Chris Coghlan drew a full-count walk to load the bases for Rizzo. On a 2-2 pitch from Morton, Rizzo hit a 78-mph curveball for a two-run double to give the Cubs a 2-0 lead.
Castro wasted no time extending the Cubs’ lead. Batting fourth in the lineup, Castro crushed an 0-2 curveball over the left field wall for a three-run homer to put the Cubs ahead 5-0.
“We’ve been in almost every game,” Rizzo said. “In the ones we’re not winning, we’re right there, and of late we’ve been winning those games. I think that’s been the difference as of now.”
It was Castro’s 11th home run this season, surpassing last year’s total in just his 71st game of the season. Castro is on pace to break his career high in home runs, which he set in 2012 with 14. That season he hit his 11th homer on Aug. 1 — also against the Pirates — in Game 103. He needed only 71 games this season to hit 11 home runs.
“I think he’s just really trying to get pitches up in the zone a little bit,” manager Rick Renteria said of Castro’s improved slugging numbers. “Just making sure he’s focused in on the zones he can handle.”
Coghlan’s homer to lead off the fifth was exactly what the Cubs, who went up 6-3, needed after the Pirates scored three runs in the top of the inning.
Jackson seemed headed for an impressive start, especially after he struck out the side in the fourth inning.
Cramping in both calves cut short Jackson’s outing. The cramps popped up in the fifth and affected him on the mound. It allowed the Pirates to chip away at the Cubs’ 5-0 lead. Jackson (5-7) walked Josh Harrison and Pedro Alvarez on eight consecutive balls to start the fifth. Pittsburgh shortstop Jordy Mercer made Jackson pay, hitting a three-run homer to cut the Cubs’ lead to 5-3 in the fifth.
Jackson (5-7) allowed three runs on five hits in five innings and struck out eight. Renteria said Jackson would have gone back out for the sixth inning if he wasn’t hampered by cramps. It was the first time in his career both calves cramped at the same time, Jackson said.
“Honestly I felt like they had no chance,” Jackson said. “That was just the mind frame I was in. This is a tough team, and they’ve beaten me before. I felt like I came out today and the ball was in my court pretty much the whole game.”
Hector Rondon earned his eighth save in 10 chances chances, one of five relievers for the Cubs who combined to hold the Pirates (35-38) to two hits and did not allow a run in four total innings. The Cubs improved to 11-7 in June, tying them with the Milwaukee Brewers for most victories this month.