MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Chicago Cubs

Game 36 Recap: Pirates 2 Cubs 1

The Pirates narrowly escaped with their first win over the Cubs in six games this season, but given the way it all unfolded, they’ll leave town feeling good about it. The Cubs hit the road knowing they missed some opportunities this week, going 3-3 with two one-run losses and one game coughed up by the bullpen.

Top Play: The Cubs couldn’t do anything against Pirates starter Gerrit Cole on Sunday, scratching out three hits and failing to walk in eight innings. Cole pounded the zone, and though the Cubs appropriately responded by trying to knock him out (rather than wait him out), they couldn’t square up his terrific stuff.

After Cole left for a pinch-hitter in the top of the ninth, though, Mark Melancon came on for a save opportunity, and the Cubs almost stormed back to tie it. Dexter Fowler walked, and Jason Heyward followed with a single to right field (+0.179 WPA) that sent Fowler to third and brought Kris Bryant to the plate as the winning run. Fowler and Heyward continue to be a phenomenal pairing at the top of the lineup, even if they might be a bit more effective batting in the opposite order. Unfortunately for the Cubs, Bryant and Anthony Rizzo each flew out, and the rally fell short when Ben Zobrist grounded out to second base. Each of the Cubs’ last two losses have been punctuated by late rallies in which Bryant and Rizzo each failed to push across the tying run. More than anything, though, that reinforces the danger in playing Chicago. To beat them, one usually must escape at least one or two tricky situations like those, because the club’s pitching and fielding keep most games close, and the lineup is filled with hitters who can get on base and create a scoring threat.

Bottom Play: Jon Lester was brilliant again, holding Pittsburgh hitless through 6 1/3 innings. When Starling Marte shot a ground ball through the right side of the infield to end that no-hit bid, though, things got sideways. Lester had racked up a pitch count of over 100 by then, and when Marte stole second base, the Pirates were just a base hit away from taking the lead. Lester regrouped to strike out Francisco Cervelli, but because the Cubs hadn’t warmed anyone up until Lester allowed his first hit, he then had to stay in to face Jung-Ho Kang. On a 1-1 pitch, Kang doubled into the gap in right-center field, scoring Marte and giving Pittsburgh the lead (-0.212 WPA). Despite the Cubs’ ninth-inning rally, they never erased that deficit.

Key Moment: Since Hector Rondon hadn’t pitched since Wednesday, and with a day off looming, Joe Maddon elected to have his closer take care of the top of the ninth inning, despite the Pirates’ 1-0 lead. That was a good choice, likely to help keep Rondon in a rhythm, and on many days, it would have paid off with a quick inning and an even better chance for Chicago to tie the game in the bottom half. Rondon has been unhittable in 2016. On Sunday, though, that wasn’t the case. Rondon froze Cervelli for a strikeout to lead off the inning, but on the seventh pitch of the next plate appearance, Kang homered, doubling the Pittsburgh advantage. Rondon would leave after facing four batters, throwing 22 pitches, and retiring only Cervelli. It just wasn’t his day, but in the grand scheme of things, he picked a good time to be a bit off. His WPA for the day was -0.10; most bad performances by closers turn would-be wins into losses. Rondon’s hiccup simply gave the Cubs a tougher hill to climb, and if he hadn’t struggled so much, it’s likely Cole would have gotten the ninth inning, so it’s hard to assume the Cubs would have scored to tie the contest even then.

Trend to Watch: Javier Baez started at third base for the fifth straight Lester start. It appears that, given Lester’s good ground-ball rate and teams’ tendency to stack the lineup with right-handed batters when he pitches, that Maddon intends to make Baez Lester’s personal third baseman, in addition to having David Ross be his personal catcher. Given the Cubs’ desire to spread rest around to all of their position players and to keep Baez in the lineup with some regularity, it’s a smart way to line things up.

What’s Next: After an off day Monday, the Cubs will start a tricky, tough nine-game road trip with a three-game set in Milwaukee. Look for the series preview for that one on Tuesday morning. Kyle Hendricks will pitch the first game of the set for the Cubs, against Brewers right-hander Chase Anderson.

Featured Image courtesy of David Banks, USA Today.

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