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Built on huge homers, Cubs' big innings a formula for success

CHICAGO -- He's been in right field this week, but for the Philadelphia Phillies, not the Chicago Cubs. Bryce Harper might have been at the top of the offseason wish list for more than a few fans last winter, but not many are clamoring for him in Chicago right now. That's because the Cubs' offense -- once thought broken -- continues to put up big numbers in a resurgent season at the plate. At least so far.

Wednesday was one of the few good hitting nights at Wrigley Field this season, as the ballpark has played favorably for pitchers. But the temperature -- and the winds -- made a dramatic change overnight, and the Cubs took advantage. Three long home runs, including Albert Almora Jr.'s first career grand slam, helped the home team coast to a big victory after trading a pair of one-run wins in the first two games of four between these division-leading teams.

"He had gotten me earlier in the game with the bases loaded and two outs," Almora said of Phillies starter Cole Irvin. "I didn't want to leave six men out there."

Almora's first-pitch slam in the fifth inning broke a 3-3 tie and the Cubs never looked back, eventually beating the Phillies 8-4. While collecting eight hits and four walks, the Cubs maintained a hefty lead in the National League in an all-important offensive category: on-base percentage. They lead the Dodgers and Cardinals by six points after Wednesday. No other major statistic correlates to runs scoring better than getting on base. For whatever reason, the Cubs forgot how to do that in the second half of last season, but they got it back.

Their thump is back, too. The Cubs finished 11th in the National League in home runs in 2018 but rank third so far this year while playing fewer games than the two teams ahead of them as well as almost every team behind them. And they're doing it in a more pitcher-friendly Wrigley Field. Perhaps the return of their power coincides with a change in hitting coach they made after last season, but it's more likely tied to the maturation of a lineup built around their young veteran hitters.

Almora is a key example. He hit his fifth home run Wednesday after hitting five all of last year. And there's a reason Chicago manager Joe Maddon is batting him lower in the lineup, behind OBP stalwarts such as Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras: Almora doesn't strike out much.

"By putting him down there I have a strong belief the ball is going to be moved with people on base," Maddon said.

There's that on-base thing again. The Cubs love to clog up the basepaths and, yes, sometimes they strand too many, but over time, those clogged bases will turn into big run totals.

Irvin got to Almora twice Wednesday, but the third time was the charm for the Cubs outfielder. His grand slam was preceded by a game-tying, third-inning blast from Rizzo, a bomb that hit the Budweiser sign beyond the right-field fence.

"Literally almost knocked out the sign," Maddon said. "He got the D [in Budweiser]. That ball was crushed."

So was Javier Baez's seventh-inning blast. The big hits and runs just kept coming.

So who needs Harper when the offense looks like this? Of course, Maddon didn't buy that narrative quite so easily. He didn't say it outright, but who wouldn't want another premier hitter? After all, last year the Cubs tanked in the second half. The more insulation they have from that happening again, the better.

"It's always good to have depth," Maddon said. "I can't discount that. It's nice to see our guys come through like this, but it's still a long ways to go."

No truer words have been said, considering the collapse of last season. But for now -- and that's all we can go off of -- the Cubs have rediscovered their ability to get on base combined with flexing some muscle. Wednesday was a great example, and led to a tip of the cap by Almora.

"The curtain call went by so quick," he said. "I wish I could have enjoyed it more."

If that's the worst the Cubs have to worry about on offense, they'll be in good shape.