The Pirates offense pounded out 12 hits, and the new and improved bullpen shut the door as the Pirates defeated the Chicago Cubs 7-5.
The top five hitters in the lineup combined to reach base eight times and drive in five runs, including solo home runs from Gregory Polanco and Andrew McCutchen.
The offense got going early when Gregory Polanco greeted Cubs starter Dan Haren with a lead-off home run to give the Pirates the early 1-0 lead. That was just the beginning from the Pirates, as they were able to score runs in four separate innings and had at least one base runner in six of the eight innings.
Jeff Locke got off to an extremely efficient, effective start, only allowing one base runner through the first five innings. The wheels came off in the sixth inning, however. After administering his first free pass of the game, Cubs rookie Kyle Schwarber hit a hanging breaking ball into the centerfield seats, and one out later Anthony Rizzo hit a blast of his own into the right field seats, erasing the Pirates’ lead and tying the game at four.
The game turned into a battle of the bullpens, which favors the Pirates right now against almost any other team in baseball. The Pirates were able to score three runs off of the Cubs bullpen, while their own bullpen was able to shut the Cubs offense down. Antonio Bastardo got the Pirates out of a bases loaded jam in the sixth inning with just one pitch, which induced a harmless groundout, earning him the win.
Joakim Soria and Tony Watson combined to pitch two scoreless innings, and Mark Melancon earned the save in the ninth inning, giving up one meaningless run in the process.
This Bullpen Can Shorten Games
The injury to A.J. Burnett has left the Pirates with a lot of questions regarding the state of their starting rotation, and rightfully so. After Cole and Liriano, there is some instability and some inconsistency with Morton, Locke and Happ.
But the bullpen that Neal Huntington has built for the Pirates should ease a lot of minds and compensate for the weaknesses of this starting rotation. You saw what the bullpen is capable of doing in full force tonight, confirming that if the Pirates have the lead in the sixth inning, their chances of winning are pretty high.
“It was a strength before. There’s more depth to it now,” Hurdle said after tonight’s game regarding his bullpen. “We can use it a couple of different ways as well as we move forward. Hughes can become a wild card; Caminero has worked himself into a better place. We’ve got some different options to go to before that. I’m real pleased with the way it’s setting up.”
Hurdle has virtually any weapon he could possibly want from a bullpen at his disposal. Jared Hughes and his 62% ground ball rate has gotten the Pirates out of almost every jam he’s been he’s been asked to pitch through. Arquimedes Caminero seems to have corrected his mid-season mechanical issues, and can provide Hurdle with a strikeout if needed. If the Pirates have a lead through six innings, the combination of Soria, Watson and Melancon are going to shut the door just about every time.
The Pirates are in a unique situation where their starter really only needs to pitch five innings before turning it over to arguably the best bullpen in the National League. Most teams in baseball only have two or in some cases just one reliable relief pitcher to turn to late in games. The Pirates have at least four, and that takes a ton of pressure off of the back-end of the rotation to go deep into games.
“I think, if anything, it kind of irritates us a little bit, you know? Because we wanna pitch,” Locke laughed after the game. “We know how strong the bullpen is, but at the same time, I think if you look at it the way [the starters] think about it, we really need those guys down the stretch too. I was always told as a kid that the relievers are there for when the starter falters. Sometimes nobody falters and we just go to them anyways because they’re so strong.”
With this security blanket, the Pirates are in a better position to withstand the injury to A.J. Burnett.