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Pirates Lose First 2016 Matchup Against Cubs, 7-2


PITTSBURGH – Well, at least fewer people saw this loss against the Cubs than the last one.

That represents a thinly veiled attempt at context for the Pirates’ 7-2 home loss Monday night to the Chicago Cubs, their first crack at them since the 2015 Wild Card Game.

In every year previous to this, a May loss to the Cubs at PNC Park would be treated with an attitude of “ah well, get ’em next time.”

Problem is, this year, early season Pirates-Cubs games take on more significance, both in perception and the cold-hard standings, than they have in…

((clicks through Baseball-Reference seasons pages))

… 43 years!

Truly every win or loss has a substantive effect on the Bucs’ chances of making the elusive 8-team tournament known as the “real” MLB Playoffs, so every win or loss merits dissection.

Make You Lose Control

Let’s dispense with the obvious, Pirates starter Gerrit Cole was bad Monday night. But not just in the most apparent way of five earned runs in 4.2 IP, tied for the most since he reached the Majors.

It was also the fact that Cole walked four batters for only the second time in his MLB career (this one the worse in terms of walk percentage), allowed three steals (“We got abused there,” Cole said) and hit a guy (with a baseball).

“There really wasn’t a whole lot of command, period. Didn’t really have anything we could go to,” Cole said. “A lot of high and right misses, a lot of pulls.”

Furthermore, two of those walks were with the bases empty, a seeming desire to not challenge Dexter Fowler and Kris Bryant, or more charitably a loss of rhythm for a pitcher usually adept at throwing strikes.

Manager Clint Hurdle is fond of looking at three-ball counts as an indicator of command. Cole was awful in that area: he got to a three-ball count 8 times over 25 batters.

“He was out of sync,” said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. “Just didn’t have it tonight. The fastball command wasn’t available.”

Anything in the pitch-by-pitch data we can identify as a concern? Not particularly, through my amateur eyes.

  • Cole threw a lot of fastballs, especially early (his first 10 pitches and 16 of his first 17 were all fastballs).
  • The velocity was up: Cole sat 96 and hit 99 MPH, but I wouldn’t characterize it as necessarily a more hittable fastball in that way.
  • That said, all the hits Cole gave up were on the fastball, except for one slider. So what do I know?
  • Slider looked sharp, though — 7 whiffs on 21 pitches with it.

“I’m feeling good physically,” Cole said. “It boils down to fastball command. At my best, I have an established strike zone in all four corners… [The Cubs] aren’t going to swing at stuff that’s not in the zone.”

Mistakes, I’ve Made a Few

The only reason that I wrote in the previous section “five earned runs in 4.2 IP, tied for the most since he reached the Majors” instead of “six earned runs in 4.2 IP, most since he reached the majors” was because of a bad Josh Harrison throw. The Pirates infield tried to cleverly extinguish a double-steal, instead they got burned. ‘Twas ever thus.

“The league will keep running [double steals] against us until we stop it,” Hurdle said.

Also, Kyle Lobstein threw a wild pitch that allowed a run to score, but he ate up three innings while most Pittsburghers had already turned their full attention to the Penguins game.

A Note on Jason Hammel

I’d be remiss if I didn’t spare some pixels on Jason Hammel, because we will no doubt see him again under important circumstances, as we look ahead to 18 more games against the Cubs.

This is thinking out loud: Are we positive that Jason Hammel is good? Like, absolutely certain?

The dude has now made 228 starts in the Major Leagues (I’m including the playoffs, because apparently we have to do that with the Cubs now), and yet all our top scientists are still unable to determine whether or not he is genuinely a good pitcher.


Hammel used his off-speed stuff well, only giving up RBIs to Andrew McCutchen, and one of those was the first home run Hammel has allowed since last September.

If he continues to not give up homers, he’ll be a great pitcher. And if I had Channing Tatum’s body, I’d have a date tonight instead of covering this baseball game.

I’ve never been good at analogies.

Yes, “every game matters” in a very cliché sense. The games against the Cardinals and Cubs matter more for what the Pirates hope to accomplish this year. We both know this.

So as much as you could “ah well, get ’em next time,” fact is the Pirates now have to be five games better than the Cubs for the rest of the season to win an outright division title.

And soon Penguins fans will actually be watching.

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