Happ leads way as Cubs break out, pad lead

Happ leads way as Cubs break out, pad lead

PITTSBURGH -- Looking to spark a lineup that was kept quiet the last three nights at PNC Park, Cubs manager Joe Maddon kept it local. Maddon slotted Ian Happ, a product of nearby Mt. Lebanon, into the leadoff spot and watched the Cubs' bats slowly but surely break out in an 8-2 win over the Pirates on Thursday night.

"He's from Mt. Lebanon. I actually played at Lafayette with a couple of guys from Mt. Lebanon," Maddon said before the game. "So I thought, 'He's right next to his hometown, he's got to have a good day leading off.'"

Maddon was joking, of course, but Happ still delivered. Batting first for just the seventh time this season, the rookie went 3-for-5 with two doubles, two runs and an outfield assist. After managing only four runs in the first three games of their four-game series against the Pirates, the Cubs matched that total in the first four innings of Thursday's finale. Pirates starter Jameson Taillon gave up one run in each of his first four innings and two more in the fifth, and the Cubs tacked on two more runs in the seventh against reliever Angel Sanchez.

Happ's leadoff double in the 3rd

The Cubs pulled five games ahead of the Cardinals and the Brewers in the National League Central heading into a three-game series against Milwaukee at Wrigley Field.

"Wherever I can help the team," Happ said about batting leadoff. "To be able to get on base for those guys behind me was great."

The offensive contributions came from up and down the Cubs' lineup. Every starter but Kyle Schwarber recorded at least one hit, while Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward each tallied two hits. The Cubs piled on six doubles against Taillon, charged with six runs on 11 hits over 4 2/3 innings, and Albert Almora Jr. -- a midgame substitution for Schwarber -- lined a 109.3-mph homer, according to Statcast™, to left off Sanchez.

Almora Jr.'s two-run no-doubter

It has been a trying year for Taillon. The 25-year-old right-hander had surgery on May 8 after being diagnosed with testicular cancer. He returned strong a little more than a month later, lowering his ERA to 2.73 by the All-Star break. He has struggled in the second half, however, posting a 7.17 ERA and a 1.80 WHIP in 11 starts.

"Frustrating, I guess, that's probably the best word," Taillon said. "I felt strong. I felt great. But no one cares how you feel. You've got to go get results and get guys out. I felt great, but they were hitting every single mistake I made. You can't make mistakes. … I'm all right. Putting up results would be nice."

Cubs starter Jon Lester ran up a high pitch count early on but limited the damage. Lester yielded only one run on five hits and four walks while throwing 111 pitches in six innings en route to his 10th victory.

Lester grinds through 6 innings, finishes strong

Lester's solid performance

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Cut down: After Elias Diaz's double-play grounder erased a leadoff walk by Sean Rodriguez in the second inning, Jordy Mercer ripped a double to left field off Lester. Up came Taillon, who smacked a single to shallow center field. Playing in, Happ quickly fielded the ball and fired home. Third-base coach Joey Cora sent Mercer from second, but Happ's 89-mph, 216-foot throw from center beat Mercer to the plate. Catcher Rene Rivera easily tagged out Mercer for the final out of the inning. It was Happ's third outfield assist of the season and his second from center field.

"I think it's the first time I threw somebody out in center field," Happ said. "You don't get it a lot. Playing the pitcher really shallow there, so you can be aggressive on that ball. Being able to shut 'em down and keep the game where it was at was big."

Happ throws out Mercer at home

Line-drive Lester: With runners on first and second and one out in the fourth inning, Lester swung at the first pitch he saw from Taillon -- a 94.9-mph fastball -- and ripped it to right-center field. Heyward came around to score from second on Lester's third double and sixth RBI of the season, matching his totals from last year.

"You just close your eyes and swing and sometimes you run into it," Lester said. "This year's been a little bit better. I can actually see this year and that's good. I think it's just repetition, too. This is my third year here, and when you're getting these at-bats, you need to kind of figure some things out. It's nice to help contribute and not just be an out."

Lester's RBI double to the gap

QUOTABLE
"It's something we'll have to talk about to see the reasoning, talk about what they're seeing and what maybe could help me. It's a conversation we definitely have to have, but if they think something else will help me a little more, I'm open to it." -- Taillon, on the possibility of skipping a start down the stretch

Taillon K's Zobrist

SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
Pirates rookie Josh Bell drove in a run on a groundout in the third inning, his 83rd RBI of the season. The last Pirates rookie to drive in more than 83 runs in a season was Maurice Van Robays, who totaled 116 RBIs in 1940.

Bell's RBI groundout

Pirates rookie Christopher Bostick recorded his first Major League hit in the ninth inning, a one-out double off the right-field wall during the second downpour of the night.

"Not the greatest [weather], but definitely exciting," Bostick said. "I was walking to the plate thinking, 'Man, what a funny way if this actually happens.' Pretty cool."

Bostick's first career hit

WHAT'S NEXT
Cubs: Right-hander John Lackey will take the mound Friday night at Wrigley Field as the Cubs begin a three-game series against the NL Central rival Brewers. Lackey retired the final 16 batters he faced and held the Braves scoreless over seven innings in his last outing. First pitch is scheduled for 7:05 p.m. CT in the first Friday night game in Wrigley Field history.

Pirates: Clad in jumpsuits as part of a themed road trip, the Pirates left town Thursday night and headed to St. Louis. The Bucs will begin a three-game series with the Cardinals on Friday night, with right-hander Trevor Williams matching up with Cards rookie Luke Weaver at Busch Stadium. Andrew McCutchen is expected to be out of the starting lineup, with Starling Marte sliding over to center field, and both Gregory Polanco and Adam Frazier are expected to be activated off the disabled list. First pitch is scheduled for 8:15 p.m. ET.

Watch every out-of-market regular-season game live on MLB.TV.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.

Bob Cohn is a contributor to MLB.com and covered the Cubs on Thursday.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.