The Cubs' bats warmed up at the perfect time, giving them two straight wins against the National League Center-led Pirates.
At the end of the Cubs Wednesday's 10-6 win, they sit 4 1/2 games behind the Pirates, their direction at the August 1 trade deadline hanging in the balance as a division title is still within reach.
“Probably rarely is it at a point where you'd say about the division in mid-June, where I think anyone can still win it,” president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said before Wednesday's game, “but nobody has. withdrawing, or even away from .500.”
After the game, even the Pirates (34-32) were only two games over . 500. The Cubs (30-37) are seven games under him.
“Given where we are in relation to . 500, I think in a normal season we'd see a much steeper climb than at the moment,” said Hoyer. “And obviously that's a lucky thing.”
So far, the Cubs haven't capitalized on the surprisingly short climb to the top of NL Central. But they have time to change it.
Speculation is already swirling about the returns the Cubs could get if they trade players like Cody Bellinger and Marcus Stroman, top players who are likely to head to free agency at the end of the year.
Stroman is expected to opt out of his contract at the end of this season, and he has been open about the impasse in renewal talks. On Wednesday, Hoyer addressed Stroman's Tweets and comments about the situation, while adhering to his own policy of not addressing ongoing negotiations.
“I love the fact that he wants to be here,” said Hoyer. “And we've talked about it, and I'm not going to reveal what we've talked about. But there's dialogue, and we'll keep it at home.
Stroman described the dialogue as “talking in circles”.
Negotiating deep into the season is not yet standard practice for this front office.
“In theory, negotiating in any season is more difficult,” said Hoyer. “You get different data every five days, I think it can be more challenging. But I won't get into it with this specifically.
Right now, the trade deadline looms as a key date for those talks, but if the team does push through the division, it's unlikely to happen again.
The Cubs played Wednesday like a team determined to climb.
They fell behind early. Starter Drew Smyly, who has not dropped multiple home runs in a single game all year, gave up twice in the first inning to give the Pirates a 3-0 lead.
From there, the Pirates contributed most of the offense into the sixth inning, including Smyly's third homer.
In the bottom of the sixth, the Cubs hit back.
The Cubs brought 11 batters to the plate. Dansby Swanson and Christopher Morel led the innings with back-to-back singles. Yan Goems and Nick Madrigal drew a path to load the base and then ran. Mike Tauchman hit a line drive into shallow center field to cut the Pirates' lead to one round. Seiya Suzuki hit a four-point free pass to reload the bases.
With two outs, Ian Happ dropped his bathead into low ballast, drilling it through the left side of infield. Madrigal scored while standing. The pitch from left field was a few steps behind the sliding Tauchman, who spun as he emerged on the other side of home plate, holding up his first in celebration. The Cubs took their first lead of the night.
They would make another run that inning and three more before the game ended. A step closer.