PITTSBURGH – Behind Jon Lester’s complete game, the Chicago Cubs defeated the Pirates 2-1, securing a split of today’s double-header and remaining four games back of the Pirates for the top Wild Card position, the same place in the standings where they stood entering the day.
Lester stifled the Pirates’ offense, scattering five hits, allowing only one earned run and striking out nine batters. He had complete control of his arsenal of pitches, keeping the Pirates’ offense off-balanced and inducing a lot of weak contact.
“He can throw that ball in a teacup down and in to the right-handers, and then he can cut it off of that,” Hurdle said in praise of Lester after tonight’s game. “I probably saw more curveballs and change-ups from him tonight with good command. [He was] changing speeds extremely well. He just kept nailing that ball to the glove-side down and in. It was tough for us to get the barrel to it.”
The Pirates did stage a rally in the bottom of the seventh inning after consecutive singles by Aramis Ramirez and Francisco Cervelli put runners on first and third base with no one out. Michael Morse was able to work the count to his favor at 3-1, then made solid contact, however he grounded out sharply to the Cubs’ shortstop for an easy 6-4-3 double play, abruptly ending the Pirates’ only rally of the game.
“I got a good pitch to hit,” Morse said “He just got it enough down that it got the lower part of my barrel. I was thinking sac-fly, trying to hit it in the air, but he’s a very good pitcher and he knows how to get groundballs.”
That was the story of the night for the offense, as Lester pounded his fastball/cutter combo down and in to the Pirates’ all right-handed lineup, inducing ten groundball outs, five of them to third base alone.
The Pirates have struggled mightily this season against the Cubs’ pitching duo of Lester and Jake Arrieta. In a combined five starts and 37 total innings against the Pirates, the duo has a 0.97 ERA and have struck out 37 batters. The Cubs have won four of those five games. The Pirates face Arrieta tomorrow night in the third game of this four game set, and Lester is currently scheduled to face the Pirates in their next series in Chicago in late September.
If the Pirates are unable to catch the Cardinals in the division, they will face one of these two in the one-game Wild Card playoff, a task that seems daunting considering their lack of success against the Cubs’ two aces. It would be beneficial for the Pirates’ offense to find a way to have some success against these two pitchers and gain some confidence prior to the Wild Card game since it is possible that they would have to face one of these two with their season on the line.
** J.A .Happ pitched well enough to win tonight’s game, throwing 5.2 innings and allowing just two earned runs while striking out eight, but unfortunately was not given much breathing room by the Pirates’ offense and Lester’s dominant performance. Happ made some mistakes over the middle of the plate and pitched himself into a couple of jams, but was able to bear down and minimize the damage, keeping the Pirates in the game.
“I got myself into a couple of tough situations and had to really give it everything to try to get out of there,” Happ said. “We were fortunate to execute some pitches in a couple instances and keep the game real close.”
Happ’s newfound ability to get strike outs when he needs them was on full display tonight, including in the fifth inning. It looked as if the Cubs had Happ on the ropes after they sandwiched two doubles between a failed fielder’s choice, when the Pirates tried to get the Cubs’ David Ross at third base on a Lester sacrifice bunt. They had runners on second and third with no outs, and were looking to break the game open with the heart of their order coming to the plate. However, Happ struck out both Austin Jackson and Kris Bryant, and, after intentionally walking Anthony Rizzo, induced a lazy fly ball to left field off of the bat of Starlin Castro to escape the jam.
In Happ’s last three starts, he has struck out 26 batters in just 18.2 innings pitched.
** In what was a questionable move by Clint Hurdle and the Pirates’ staff, Pedro Florimon started tonight’s game at shortstop over Jordy Mercer and Jung-Ho Kang. Hurdle said afterwards that the decision was pre-planned in order to rest Mercer/Kang.
It appears that no matter what the situation and how deep into the season the Pirates get, they will not abandon their philosophy of resting their core group of players. It’s hard to argue, considering the Pirates are among the league leaders in least amount of man-games lost, but the move tonight was a bit puzzling considering the match-up.
Florimon finished the night 0-2 with a strikeout and is hitting .091 for the season.
** As mentioned above, the Pirates will get another crack at Cubs’ ace Jake Arrieta tomorrow night, hoping to earn at least a series split of this four-game series. Arrieta, who will be seeking his 20th win of the season, has been nearly unhittable in the second-half – he has an 0.93 ERA in his last eleven starts, and the Cubs have won his last eight starts. However, his 2.59 xFIP suggests that he is due for a slight regression, so the Pirates hope that they can force it to begin tomorrow night.