PITTSBURGH — Tonight was a game that only September baseball could bring.
In a chaotic, wacky, up-and-down affair, the Chicago Cubs defeated the Pirates in 12 innings 3-2 in a game that featured seven stolen bases, four errors, a controversial play at the plate and 43 different players used between the two teams.
Despite the loss, A.J. Burnett provided the Pirates with a big positive to take away from tonight’s game. One of the big questions surrounding the Pirates heading towards October was: which starters would slot into the third and fourth position of the rotation in a five-game playoff series? With the uncertainty concerning the availability of Burnett because of the his flexor tendon strain in his pitching elbow, it looked as if the answers to that question were going to be J.A. Happ and Charlie Morton, which would be a bit unsettling considering Happ’s inconsistent track record, despite his recent strong stretch, and Morton’s enigmatic nature.
However, since Burnett has returned from the disabled list last week, he has looked closer to the pitcher that he was in his remarkable first half of the season.
Tonight, Burnett’s outing went similarly to J.A. Happ’s in last night’s game. The Cubs had a runner in scoring position in all but one of Burnett’s first five innings, but he was able to keep the Cubs off the board in each of those innings. In the sixth inning, however, the Cubs were able to break through against Burnett after Kris Bryant doubled home Anthony Rizzo. After Miguel Montero singled Bryant to third base, Jared Hughes replaced Burnett and a second run was charged to Burnett when Starlin Castro executed a safety squeeze perfectly. Like Happ the previous night, Burnett was unable to complete the sixth inning, but was able to minimize the damage to just two earned runs in 5.1 innings pitched, while striking out seven Cubs batters.
“I thought he had a real good night out there,” Hurdle said following the game. “He was in the stretch a lot, and that’s when he really went to work. He mixed his pitches up. The curveball played big, he threw a lot of change-ups. So I thought it was another real nice step forward [for Burnett].”
Burnett has shown signs of rust since returning from the DL, but tonight his fastball velocity played consistently in the low-90s, and his curveball induced the swing-and-misses that he is accustomed to getting – five of his strikeouts tonight came via his curveball. Overall, Burnett is happy with his progression since his return to the rotation.
“I’m getting there I think. I think tonight was way better than the first start,” Burnett exclaimed. “It’s just one of those things, I haven’t been out there and getting back out on the mound and getting into the environment – Cubs being in town, it’s exciting.”
“I feel great. I don’t feel anything at all. It’s just a matter of getting a little more strike one’s to certain guys and putting guys away. I did a decent job of that with guys on-base but like I said I’d like to stay in the windup a little more.”
Having a healthy and effective Burnett, along with Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano, would provide the Pirates with the stability necessary in their starting rotation to compete in a potential playoff series.
** Unfortunately for the Pirates, if they aren’t able to overtake the Cardinals for the division title, setting up their playoff rotation will be a moot point unless they can win the one-game Wild Card game against the Cubs. With the Pirates loss tonight and another Cardinals victory, the Pirates have fallen four games behind St. Louis with just 17 games remaining. The Pirates have an unfavorable schedule the final two and a half weeks of the season, with trips to Los Angeles and Chicago on the horizon, facing the first-place Dodgers and the Cubs. Meanwhile, only six of the Cardinals’ remaining 17 games, including three in Pittsburgh, will be against teams with records over .500.
Jake Arrieta gave the Pirates just another preview of what they may be faced with in the likely Wild Card match-up. Arrieta dominated again tonight, pitching eight innings while only giving up one earned run. In four starts against the Pirates this season, Arrieta has allowed only three earned runs and has given up only 17 hits in 29 innings. Besides Madison Bumgarner, for obvious reasons, Arrieta could be the one pitcher in baseball that the Pirates wouldn’t want to face in a one-game elimination scenario.
“Arrieta is always going to be tough. He’s one of the toughest guys in the league this year,” Aramis Ramirez said. “We’ll have to bring our A-game if we do [face Arrieta] in the Wild Card game.”
** The Pirates will look for a critical series split tomorrow in a get-away afternoon game beginning at 12:35. Charlie Morton will take the hill for the Pirates while the Cubs will send out Kyle Hendricks.