CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs may have scored early and often in a three-game sweep of the Cincinnati Reds, but manager Joe Maddon insists the root of any success remains starting pitching.

“It was pretty good and that’s always the biggest part, the starting pitching drives the engine,” Maddon said following Thursday’s 9-5 victory over the Reds at Wrigley Field. “By keeping the other team down, you get your guys in the flow of the game and do their thing.”

The Cubs (21-19) showed that pitching may be largely returning to the championship form of their 2016 World Series season.

“We’re trending in the right direction, which is good,” said Cubs left-handed starter Jon Lester, now 2-2 after working six-plus innings. “Anytime you’re able to win consecutive games, the starting pitcher and the bullpen are going to have to pitch out of jams, that’s part of the game.”

Lester’s win came on the heels of solid performances by fellow starters Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey.

The Cubs’ early offensive dominance was critical in each win over the Reds (19-21). Chicago posted a three-run first on Tuesday, a five-run second on Wednesday and five in the opening inning on Thursday.

Javier Baez went 3-for-3 with five RBIs and capped the first inning with a grand slam to left-center off Reds starter Amir Garrett, who had just arrived from a brief minor league stint at Triple-A Louisville and was making his seventh Reds start of the year.

Lester worked six shutout innings before the Reds exploded for four seventh-inning runs. It was his first win since May 2 in a season featuring five no-decisions.

The Cubs have won three straight while the Reds have now lost six in a row.

Garrett (4-3) struggled right out of the gate en route to the loss. He walked in one run before giving up the grand slam to Baez as the Cubs opened a 5-0 lead.

The Baez homer, his sixth of the season, came on a 1-2 pitch and also plated Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras and Addison Russell.

“It was a hanging slider,” said Garrett. “I was trying to just make it nasty the way it needed to be. … It was up in the zone, it was hanging and he got a good swing on it and hit it out of the park.”

The Reds left-hander settled down and allowed just two hits and a walk over two scoreless innings.

“He was really down, like he had a lot of those really low bounced fastballs and then the changeup and breaking ball were elevated,” said Reds manager Bryan Price. “Just watching the pitches on replay you could see the location misses. He just wasn’t sharp.”

In the fourth, Garrett gave up a first-pitch solo home run to Kris Bryant that landed well beyond the center-field wall to make it 6-0.

Garrett allowed six runs on five hits, walked four and struck out five in a four-inning outing, his first for the Reds since May 6.

Reds right-hander Blake Wood entered in relief and gave up three runs as Baez had an RBI single, Lester hit a sacrifice fly and Ben Zobrist singled in another run.

Lester worked into the seventh inning when he gave up three straight singles, including an RBI base hit to Arismendy Alcantara that drove in Jose Peraza.

Reliever Hector Rondon took over with two runners on and none out. Rondon gave up a ground-rule RBI double to Billy Hamilton, and Zack Cozart’s fielder’s choice grounder brought home Alcantara.

Rondon then gave up a two-out single to Adam Duvall that scored Hamilton and cut the deficit to 9-4.

Lester was responsible for three of the runs. He also gave up six hits, walked one and struck out five.

The Reds loaded the base in the ninth and scored a final run on a Duvall sacrifice fly.

Chicago collected nine hits while Reds pitchers walked nine more Cubs. Zobrist and Ian Happ each went 2-for-4. Suarez, Hamilton and Cozart each had two hits to lead the Reds.

NOTES: Cincinnati officially recalled LHP Amir Garrett from Triple-A Louisville prior to his Thursday start. … The Reds return home to open a three-game weekend series against Colorado, sending RHP Lisalverto Bonilla (0-1, 4.85 ERA) against Rockies LHP Tyler Anderson (2-4, 6.43 ERA). … The Cubs remain home for three games against the NL Central-leading Milwaukee Brewers. They’ll have RHP Eddie Butler (1-0, 0.00) making his Wrigley Field debut on Friday against Brewers RHP Paolo Espino, making his major league debut. … In a pregame ceremony, Jackie Robinson’s granddaughter, Meta, helped raise a flag up the Wrigley Field right-field foul pole commemorating the 70th anniversary of Robinson’s first game in Chicago on May 18, 1947, before a paid crowd of 46,572 fans, still the largest regular season house in Wrigley history.

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