CHICAGO -- Manager Joe Maddon has been looking for signs of life from the Cubs' offense, which has scuffled since the All-Star break. Whether it was his prodding or a players-only meeting, the Cubs got the hint and delivered on Wednesday.
Anthony Rizzo smacked an opposite-field two-run homer, Jason Heyward notched three hits and Javier Baez had two hits, including a triple, out of the leadoff spot to power the Cubs to an 8-4 victory at Wrigley Field over the Brewers and split their brief two-game series.
• Cubs' 'pen celebrates Rizzo's HR with Duck, Duck, Goose
"It was better," Maddon said of the Cubs' approach at the plate. "That's who we need to be. We need to not expand [the zone] and give the other team some escape hatches. We have to get back to that. That would be our best way to get that swarm offense going again."
With the win, Chicago regained a three-game lead in the National League Central over Milwaukee and is back to a season-high 19 games over .500.
There's 6 1/2 weeks to go, though. Hang on. It's going to be a wild ride.
"That's what makes it fun, right?" Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun said. "You want the games to be meaningful. You want to feel that emotion every day, win or lose, when you get to this point of the year. The wins feel better and the losses hurt more."
"I think early on we knew it was going to come down to the wire," Rizzo said. "I don't see us, or any team, pulling away. Winning games versus our division is big."
Maddon knows how Cubs fans would've reacted if they lost a second straight to the visiting Brewers on Wednesday.
"There's a lot of folks who would've been running for the hills if we lost," Maddon said. "There's still a long way to go. ... You can't overreact. The power of 24 hours is evident between last night and today. I can't emphasize that enough. If you want to ride the emotional roller coaster, man, it will wipe you out."
Rizzo, moved from the leadoff spot to cleanup on Wednesday, finished with three RBIs, hitting a two-run homer into the basket in left in the first inning and an RBI single in a three-run fourth. There were other positive signs: Albert Almora Jr. hit a leadoff homer in the seventh for his second extra-base hit in the month, and Addison Russell drove in his second run in August.
"I thought maybe try something differently," Maddon said before the game. "It's one of those things to give them a different perspective."
The Brewers had shut out the Cubs in their previous three meetings, but Milwaukee starter Junior Guerra couldn't keep that going and was pulled after giving up seven runs (six earned) over 3 2/3 innings.
It helps to get good pitching to go with the hitting. Starter Kyle Hendricks scattered seven hits over six-plus innings and the Cubs improved to 7-2 in his last nine starts. Hendricks allowed four runs, two of which came in the seventh inning after he was removed.
"My changeup was really good today, but it started with my fastball command," Hendricks said. "I was getting ahead of guys and then the changeup was right off it. That's always the key for me -- fastball command."
The key at-bat for the Cubs' bullpen came in the seventh, when the Brewers loaded the bases to bring the go-ahead run to the plate against C.J. Edwards After Edwards allowed two runs to score that were credited to Hendricks, left-hander Justin Wilson took over and got Travis Shaw to pop up for the second out. Jonathan Schoop then lined out to left-center field against Steve Cishek to end the inning.
"That was a big point in the game right there," Hendricks said of Shaw's at-bat. "The bullpen did their job, but the offense today was unreal. Just kept putting up runs."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Heads up: The Cubs' emphasis on using the whole field at the plate was evident in the third inning. With one out, Baez tripled into the right-field corner and scored on Heyward's double to left increase Chicago's lead to 3-0. David Bote reached on a fielder's choice that saw Heyward retired at third base, and Rizzo was safe on a fielding error by first baseman Eric Thames, although it appeared Guerra tagged Rizzo before he touched first base. Almora then walked to load the bases and Bote sprinted home on a wild pitch during Kyle Schwarber's at-bat to make it 4-0.
"I think we're doing a really good job of putting together good at-bats," Almora said. "That's all we really can control. The game of baseball is so unfair at times. You could have good at-bats and you're out. If the defense for the other team is on point, if the pitching for the other team is on point, there's just a lot of factors that go into it."
Happ's crash: Ian Happ entered as a defensive sub in left field in the eighth inning and thwarted a potential ninth-inning rally by catching Christian Yelich's leadoff fly ball. Happ slammed into the brick wall as he grabbed the ball but held on.
"I know how he feels," said Almora, who has crashed into the brick wall a few times at Wrigley Field. "I said, 'Is everything all right?' He said, 'The wall is not soft.' We started laughing and I knew he was OK. He made an unbelievable play. … If that ball drops, you don't know what could happen that inning."
Said Maddon: "That's not easy. That is made out of brick. [My wife] Jaye and I walked by the wall with the ivy on it and I said, 'Do you realize how difficult it is to play this wall?' Happer made a great play."
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Cubs fans were still buzzing about Bote's walk-off grand slam on Sunday, but in the third inning on Wednesday, his glove stood out. The Brewers had one on with two outs when Lorenzo Cain hit a grounder to third base, where Bote scooped it up barehanded and threw Cain out at first to end the inning.
"It was a good play all around," Rizzo said. "The only way [he could make the play] was to barehand it."
HE SAID IT
"I'll take starting pitching any day of the week over everything else. This game could've been called 'pitching' as opposed to baseball. I'll take pitching first, and after that, I want the offense to match up after that. … Always dig on the pitching, always first." -- Maddon, when asked which aspect of the game he relied on the most, pitching or hitting
Jonathan Lester (12-5, 3.89 ERA) will open a four-game series against the Pirates on Thursday at PNC Park, with first pitch at 6:05 p.m. CT. Lester is looking for his first win in the second half. The left-hander is 0-3 with a 10.32 ERA in five starts since the All-Star break after going 12-2 with a 2.58 ERA in the first half. One of the issues appears to be execution of his pitches. Pittsburgh will counter with Ivan Nova (7-6, 4.42).