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Pitching, offense come together again in Cubs' series sweep of Reds

CHICAGO -- For a moment, it looked like Thursday’s narrative at Wrigley Field would revolve around Chicago Cubs starter Jason Hammel. But then -- once again -- the Cubs' prolific offense stole the show.

The Cubs turned a 3-0 game into an 8-1 blowout with a five-run eighth inning, leaving Hammel to share top billing with the hitters. Then again, Hammel was one of those hitters, as he doubled home the Cubs' second run of the game, pulling back a bunt attempt and sending a blast over the right fielder’s head.

“That's the madness that is Joe Maddon,” Hammel said of the fake bunt. “Anytime you’re scoring seven-plus runs a game and you have a staff that knows a little bit of what it’s doing, then you have a good chance of winning.”

The Cubs are averaging just over seven runs per game, but the number that stands out is their differential between what they’ve scored and what they’ve given up. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only two teams in the modern era have had a better run differential than the Cubs through nine games -- the 1905 Giants and 1999 Indians were both plus-44. The Cubs are plus-43 through nine.

“When you get some runs to work with, you’re allowed to make mistakes,” Hammel said. “It’s like a family. So many guys bring so much to the table. It makes it easy to go out and have some fun. We’re having fun while we do our job.”

At this rate, the Cubs' fog machine might run out of whatever it is that makes the fog for their postgame celebrations. They're 3-for-3 using it this season, as once the Reds opened the door by blowing a late lead on Monday night, the Cubs kicked it down and took command of the three-game series. Final tally: Cubs 22, Reds 6.

“They’re all engaged in every pitch,” Maddon said. “I love it. One of our goals was to get off to a good start. Jason’s double was a big part of this game.”

Hitting aside, Hammel is paid to pitch -- something he didn’t do very well at the end of last year. He made changes, sought advice outside the organization and arrived at camp in better shape and with a new mindset. It’s paying off.

“It was a look-in-the-mirror-type moment to figure out what’s inside and continue to work hard,” Hammel said. “I dedicated myself to making some changes this offseason. It was important. I felt bad how things panned out last year.”

Fans let him know how they felt as well, but as Hammel put it, “that was last year” and he’s been around long enough to have a short memory. Besides, with the run support he and the rest of the Cubs starters are getting this month, last year seems like a distant memory.

Maddon actually was asked after Thursday’s game about “that dismal performance” in the NLCS against the Mets when the Cubs' offense went into hibernation.

“You know that dismal performance was sticking in my craw all winter,” he chuckled in response.

Last year is so done and over with for the Cubs. There isn’t a person who’s thinking about that loss to the Mets, mostly because they know that won’t be their only chance, at least not if they keep playing the way they are right now. The offense figured to be pretty good, but we couldn’t be sure about Hammel. So far he’s proving his offseason changes were productive, as his ERA after two starts is 0.75.

“He didn’t just talk about it, he went out and did it,” Maddon said.

So have the Cubs.