Message for Cubs in Bizarro Blackhawks, Bulls playoffs?

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Anthony Rizzo connects on a tying three-run homer with two out in the ninth Friday in Cincinnati. The Cubs won in the 11th.

CINCINNATI — The top-seeded Blackhawks get dominated in the first round of the NHL playoffs and eliminated in a four-game blink of an eye.

The lowly Bulls win the first two games on the road against the top-seeded Boston Celtics in the NBA playoffs to take control of that first-round series.

What’s next? The Cincinnati Reds beating the juggernaut, defending World Series champion Cubs?

Not quite on this night.

But after beating the Reds in 18 of 22 meetings going back to 2015, the Cubs needed a two-out homer in the ninth and another run in the 11th to come from behind again to beat the supposedly rebuilding Reds 6-5 on a rainy Friday night in Cincinnati.

Anthony Rizzo’s three-run line drive over the right-field wall against Michael Lorenzen with two out in the ninth tied a game the Cubs had trailed since the fourth. Kris Bryant’s two-strike fly to shallow left in the 11th turned into the game-winning sacrifice fly when Albert Almora Jr. slid ahead of a wide throw to score the go-ahead run.

It was the third consecutive game in which the Cubs came back from a deficit of at least three runs to beat an allegedly lesser opponent — and the second in a row in the ninth inning.

“We’ve been offensively teetering,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We finally got the hits late again, like we did the last couple days.”

The Cubs took over first place in the National League Central with a 9-7 record, but it looks nothing like their torrid start a year ago on the way a 103-win season.

Forget the up-and-down start to April and all the close games (Friday was the Cubs’ 10th already this season decided by two or fewer runs). The biggest reminder about life at the top is the upside-down, Bizarro World nature of other Chicago teams in the playoffs.

“Don’t take anything for granted,” said Bryant, the National League’s reigning MVP.

Rizzo: “It’s the nature of sports.”

The long-standing truism is that getting to the top isn’t as hard as staying there.

“It happens every year,” reliever Justin Grimm said. “There’s always an underdog that surprises people. That’s why you play.”

If the Blackhawks and Bulls are providing cautionary tales, the Cubs aren’t sweating it with more than five months until their own anticipated playoffs.

“It’s an entirely different season,” Maddon said. “Regarding our identity, we know who we are. It’s just a matter of getting the method back in place. What I mean by that is catch the ball consistently, run the bases well, pitch great at the end of the ballgame, have good starting pitching. Those are the things we’re capable of. We’ve showed that in bits and pieces.”

One encouraging sign is a bullpen that ran its streak to 14 pitching chances without being charged with a run (although Grimm gave up an inherited run Friday).

Late-game life in the bats also has become a trend this week. But starter Jon Lester struggled mid-game Friday, including a three-run fourth inning capped by pitcher Tim Adleman’s two-run double.

However, there’s one thing the Cubs might not escape all season after spending 2016 embracing a target, then winning a championship: the ferocity they seem to be drawing out of their opponents.

“Our last couple series, the Pirates played us super tough,” Bryant said, “and the Brewers — I mean, it just seemed like everything we threw them, they were hitting hard over the fence when the wind’s blowing in, and it’s like, ‘Oh, my, God, how are they doing this?’ Maybe teams are stepping up, playing a little harder.”

Said Maddon: “They’re coming after us. It’s not like it bothers us. I think we actually play better when teams come after us hard. We welcome it.”

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.



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