After watching starters Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett shut down the Chicago Cubs in the first two games of the series, Jeff Locke took the mound for the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday. The Bucs were looking for a sweep of their own after getting swept by the Atlanta Braves earlier this week.
In the top half of the fourth inning—with the game still scoreless—Andrew McCutchen led off with a double to left field that one-hopped into the wall. First baseman Garrett Jones then singled Cutch home two pitches later with a hard-hit single to center field.
Locke got through the bottom of the fourth by only yielding a walk—his fifth of the game—and had a no-hitter going to that point. His control in the early innings wasn’t where it usually is, but his crafty mix of a late-moving fastball, sweeping curve and precise changeup kept the Cubs bats at bay.
Locke had an inordinate amount of strikeouts through four innings—six—which helped negate his lack of control.
In the bottom of the sixth inning, his control issues started to take their tole.
He walked Cody Ransom on four pitches and then forced Anthony Rizzo to ground out to Neil Walker. However, due to the infield shift and a mental lapse by Walker, who ran the ball to first himself, Ransom was able to get himself to third base.
Locke then walked Alfonso Soriano to put runners on the corners with only one out. Scott Hairston followed by hitting a high fly to center, which scored Ransom and tied the game at one run apiece.
Dioner Navarro then singled into left—the Cubs first hit of the night—which ended Locke’s night. Pirates reliever Justin Wilson ended the inning by striking out Starlin Castro on a flaming 98 mph fastball, and the Cubs’ threat was over.
The Bucs bats went silently in the top of the seventh inning, as Cubs starter Edwin Jackson (2-8, 5.76 ERA) continued his groove and began to get some heavy movement on his sometimes-lethal splitter.
In the bottom half of the frame, Cubs center fielder Ryan Sweeney led off with a single through the left side of the infield. Pinch-hitter Julio Borbon then tried to bunt Ransom over to second, but Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez made a great play to get the out at second.
Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney followed by hitting a single to right field on a 1-1 count.
Ransom, the Cubs starting third baseman, then stepped to the plate with redemption on his mind.
In the bottom of the third, Ransom was picked off at second to end the inning, and apparently, he is the kind of guy who plays his best ball with a flame lit underneath him. Ransom drove a Wilson inside fastball—a fastball that caught a little too much of the plate—into the first row of the left field stands, making the score 4-1.
The Bucs failed to score in the eighth and ninth innings and head into Monday’s off day at 37-26.
Sunday’s loss was a disappointing one for the ball club, as it was unable to capitalize on good contact early in the game on Jackson, which allowed him to gain confidence and to (not arguably) pitch his best game of the year.
Travis Snider, Russell Martin and Alvarez all hit balls hard in the first two innings, but they all resulted in outs.
From the fifth inning to the eighth inning Sunday, the Pirates didn’t manage a hit, and when they finally were able to made good contact and get men on base, they didn’t capitalize.
In the ninth inning, McCutchen hit a one-out single to right but was then caught stealing on the next pitch. In hindsight—which historically is always 20-20—Cutch shouldn’t have attempted to steal down three in the ninth with one out, but it’s hard to criticize the guy who drives this offense on seemingly a nightly basis and is arguably the best all-around center fielder in baseball.
Jones followed with a double to deep right, but the game ended on Martin’s strikeout.
The series as a whole was a relative success, with the Pirates able to win their first series in their last three tries.
Liriano and Burnett got back on track, while the bullpen was able to lay back for the most part, with no relievers throwing in more than one of the three games.
One of the biggest keys to the season is for the team to find a starting rotation that it can rely on down the stretch—where it has fallen apart the last two seasons—and the electric stuff of Liriano and Burnett is a great place to start.
On Tuesday, the Bucs begin a six-game homestand with three against the Giants, followed by three against the Dodgers.
Super prospect and former first-overall pick Gerrit Cole will make his major league debut Tuesday against the Giants. Hopefully, the addition of Cole will bring a new energy to the slumping Pirates’ bats, who have combined for only 20 runs in eight games in June.
If the bats continue to flounder, expect manager Clint Hurdle to make some lineup adjustments that could include benching shortstop Clint Barmes and decreasing the playing time for lefty Travis Snider against righties.
If Cole pitches well, the team will have three starters at the top of the rotation with plus stuff (Burnett, Liriano and Cole), in addition to two crafty lefties in Wandy Rodriguez and Locke. Before we can start thinking about Cole as a key part of the starting staff, he’ll have to show us what he’s got in his major league debut, which Pirates management has been anxiously awaiting since it selected the young righty out of UCLA.