CHICAGO -- Just when it appeared the Chicago Cubs' offense had run out of bats with the two-time defending National League Central Division champions on the verge of falling out of first place, the Cubs showed their sticks still have some life.
A 7-6, extra-inning victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday capped by Albert Almora, Jr.'s two-out single in the 10th inning allowed the Cubs to preserve their half-game margin for the divisional lead. The Cubs will attempt to move closer to their third straight Central crown when they wrap up their four-game series against the Pirates on Thursday.
The Cubs also clinched a playoff berth Wednesday.
The seven-run explosion arrived after the Cubs had struggled to score runs against the Pirates. After dropping the first two games of the series when the Cubs managed only two runs, Chicago gave its pitching staff some run support and pulled out the win after the bullpen blew a 6-1 lead.
"There's no pressure, no panic," Almora said in a postgame televised interview.
Now, they'll look to continue the trend Thursday.
"If we could just get on the board early, that would be very helpful," Cubs manager Joe Maddon told reporters Wednesday.
"If we get a chance to get on (Pirates) starters early, we need to do that because they seem to get better games in progress."
With a win Thursday, the Cubs will earn a series split and create a bit more distance between themselves and the idle second-place Milwaukee Brewers, who clinched their first playoff berth since 2011 on Wednesday. Milwaukee finished off a sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals with a 2-1 victory Wednesday.
The Cubs hope to get third baseman Kris Bryant back in the lineup after Bryant missed Wednesday's game with a sore wrist. Bryant left Tuesday night's game after being hit by a pitch and sustaining a wrist contusion. Maddon told reporters that the swelling wasn't as bad as expected, but that it was enough to keep Bryant from playing.
Jon Lester (17-6, 3.43 ERA) takes the mound hoping to give the Cubs some momentum heading into another tough test this weekend against the Cardinals. Lester has won three of his four September starts and has allowed five earned runs in the four outings. Lester is 8-6 with 3.38 ERA in 17 career starts against the Pirates, including 3-1, 3.72 in five outings this season.
Trevor Williams (14-9, 3.04) will take the mound for the Pirates. Williams has also been impressive throughout September and has won three of his four starts with a no-decision. Williams has not allowed an earned run in three of his four starts and has struck out seven in each of his past two outings. Williams is 2-3 with a 3.41 ERA in seven career outings (five starts) against the Cubs, including 1-1, 1.38 in two turns this season.
Williams has been among the Pirates' most effective performers in the second half but has done so while not gaining much notoriety for his efforts. While he isn't flashy or doesn't overpower hitters with his approach, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said Williams is one to simply get the job done.
"It's pitchability, it's pitch execution," Hurdle told reporters earlier this month, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "He's hitting spots. He's throwing his fastball where he wants. He's changing speeds. And it's really hard to hit. He's getting it done the old-fashioned way. He's flat-out pitching."