It’s possible that, after tonight, the Pirates front office is planning a secession from the NL Central. They were swept by the Cardinals last weekend and are staring the possibility of another in division sweep in this one. They’ve been almost entirely helpless against the Cubs this year, and currently sit closer to last place in the division than to any serious contention. The pitching matchup tomorrow night at least probably tilts more in their favor, but the Pirates have had no real success against the Cubs this season, so they’ll need whatever advantage they can muster.
Tonight, it was Jon vs. Jon, and while both hurlers pitched well, it was the Cubs ability to produce runs from a variety of players that proved too much for Jon Niese to contain.
Top Play (WPA): On a night that featured three Cubs homers, it was ultimately the one from David Ross in the 6th inning that not only gave the Cubs their first lead of the night, but also sealed what would become the final score (+.187). The Cubs had chipped away at the 3-1 lead that the Pirates built, and with one out in the inning, Ross took the count full and took a two-seam fastball from Jon Niese over the wall.
Bottom Play (WPA): The fourth inning looks, in hindsight, like the most important inning of the game, as it presented the most likely point in the game for Pittsburgh to secure a win. With the bases loaded and no outs, the Pirates nearly squandered the opportunity altogether, but Jordy Mercer took a pitch off of his toe to push across a single run (-.104). Take away that one pitch, and it’s probable that the Cubs walk away from this inning unscathed, so pushing across the one run, though ultimately futile, was what should have been sufficient for Pittsburgh to leave with a win tonight.
Key Moment: One that looms large is again that fourth inning, when the Pirates loaded the bases without recording an out in what was then a 2-1 game in Pittsburgh’s favor. It was their best opportunity to secure a firm lead and ensure a rubber match on Sunday night. Instead, as he is wont to do, Jon Lester worked out of the jam. The hit-by-pitch to the foot of Jordy Mercer did score a run, but Lester preceded that with a pair of strikeouts that significantly dissipated the threat of a big Pirates inning. Lester ultimately escaped the inning after allowing just the single run, effectively keeping the game from moving out of the Cubs’ reach.
Although discounting the ability of the Cubs offense in any game is almost always a fool’s errand, the Pirates gave some glimpses tonight of the possibility that they might have more fight in them than they’ve shown so far this season. Because of that, the importance of Kris Bryant’s fifth inning solo home run to left shouldn’t be understated. It started the game over, in many ways, and in this case, ultimately worked in the Cubs favor, as it was shortly followed by a David Ross home run in the next inning that gave them a lead that they wouldn’t relinquish for the rest of the night.
Trend to Watch: Though Jon Lester wasn’t quite as sharp tonight as he has been for much of this season, he continued the sterling efforts of what is arguably the best starting rotation in baseball. He gave up seven hits and three runs in six innings, but also struck out seven and mostly worked out of the previously mentioned fourth inning jam.
On that note, Kyle Hendricks comes in tomorrow night after a pair of relatively short outings, at five and five and one-third innings apiece. He’d pitched a nine-inning, one-run win over the Phillies at the end of May and an eight-inning, two-run win over the Dodgers on June 2 before these two starts, so it had begun to appear as though he could put together starts longer than five or six innings. That hasn’t been the case the last two times he’s gone to the mound, so keep an eye on whether he pitches well enough to extend beyond the sixth inning.
Dexter Fowler left the game in the first inning with discomfort in his hamstring. The Cubs would be running short on outfielders and hard-hit on offense if he ends up out for an extended period, so this will naturally be a story worth following in the next 18 hours or so.
Up Next: This series finishes tomorrow evening with another nationally televised contest. At 7:08 on ESPN, the Cubs and Pirates will play for the last time at Wrigley until the end of August. Tomorrow, Kyle Hendricks (3.05 ERA/100 cFIP/4.30 DRA) will match wits and arms with Pirates rookie Jameson Taillon (1.93 ERA/107 cFIP/4.59 DRA). Taillon has generated a lot of deserved buzz for his performance at both AAA Indianapolis and since being called up to Pittsburgh this year. He adds a much-needed arm to what has proven a mostly unreliable Pirates rotation if he can maintain anything close to what he’s done so far.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports