The Cubs were due for a close game and they almost got it Thursday evening. 

After steamrolling the second-place Pirates over the three-game series in Pittsburgh, the Cubs looked ticketed for a nail-biting victory over the Washington Nationals in the series opener at Wrigley Field.

Instead, Ben Zobrist channeled his "Zorilla" alter-ego and smashed a two-run homer into the left-field bleachers with two outs in the bottom of the eighth en route to a 5-2 Cubs victory in front of 37,564 fans.

The Cubs were leading 5-0 with two outs in the ninth before Travis Wood served up a two-run shot to Jayson Werth, making those "jug runs" (Cubs manager Joe Maddon likens late inning insurance runs to stepping on the jugular of their opponent) all the more important.

"That's big right there," Maddon said of Zobrist's home run. "The jug runs in the eighth - they're always big when you have a lead. Two outs, to go from two to four kinda hurt [the Nationals] a little bit. Then we get another run, the extra tack on.

"Now, of course we would've worked the ninth inning differently had we not scored those runs, so you never know the outcome if Werth would've hit the home run."

Zobrist drove in the first four runs in the game - he also had a two-run single through the right side in the fourth inning to plate Tommy La Stella and Kris Bryant) - and is now second on the Cubs with 20 RBI on the season.

 

Two batters after Zobrist's blast, Addison Russell drove home Ryan Kalish with a double to left field, pushing the Cubs' run differential to a ridiculous +96 on the season.

"We're off to a good start," Cubs catcher David Ross said, "but we don't sit on the bench and talk about run differential or on-base percentage. We try to have good at-bats. 

"Guys are going up there and doing their thing pitching. Everybody's out to do their best on a daily basis and I think that's the sign of a good team."

Despite the Nationals' late comeback attempt, Zobrist still provided all the offense Kyle Hendricks and the Cubs bullpen needed.

Hendricks spun six shutout innings, allowing just two hits and a pair of walks, striking out four.

"Outstanding," Maddon said. "He was really good. I complimented him on it as I was taking him out of the game. ... Really sharp with everything."

It was the first start for Hendricks in 10 days as the Cubs essentially skipped his turn in the rotation when they were handed two rainouts last week.

"It felt good, honestly," Hendricks said. "It didn't really feel like I missed anything. I threw a lot in between those 10 days. I [threw] off the mound every other day, almost. I think that helped just keeping up with the reps to keep sharp, but I felt good. Really good."

The Cubs are now 33-17 in Hendricks' first 50 career starts, the best record in a pitcher's first 50 starts since 1945-47 (Hank Borowy).

Clayton Richard, Justin Grimm, Pedro Strop combined for two shutout innings and Hector Rondon recorded the final out as the Cubs kicked off this crucial four-game series by flying the "W" flag at Wrigley.

The Cubs now lead the majors with 21 victories, but because they've been winning by such lopsided scores, they only have four saves. 

Zobrist said he's never been on a team that was 15 games over .500 this early in the season.

"This is a really good team," he said shortly after Thursday's victory. "We've played good baseball. Tonight was another good example of that. But we're focused on winning tomorrow now. It's over. We're gonna celebrate for a half hour, and that half hour is about up, so it's time to focus on tomorrow and try and win a day game tomorrow."