The Pittsburgh Pirates finally beat the Cubs, but finish the week with a losing record. Read on for recaps and some analysis:
Record over Last Week: 2-3
Overall Record: 19-17 (2nd in NL Central)
May 9: Pirates @ Reds
Winning Pitcher: J.C. Ramirez (1-2)
Losing Pitcher: Jon Niese (3-2)
Save: Tony Cingrani (2)
Jon Niese went 6.2 innings in what could be considered one of his better starts for the season. Niese struck out 4 and only walked 1 and scattered 7 hits over his time on the mound. Unfortunately, 3 of his 7 hits were home runs as the Reds scored all of their runs the “easy” way.
Zack Cozart hit the first of the Reds’ Home Runs to lead off the bottom of the first inning to give them an early 1-0 lead. The Pirates were lucky that the Reds didn’t jump out to a bigger lead as Niese gave up a single to Billy Hamilton and hit Joey Votto with a pitch right after Cozart’s home run. However, he was able to get Brandon Phillips to ground into a double play then struck out Eugenio Suarez to end the threat.
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After the first inning Niese settled down keeping the Reds off the board through the fifth inning. However, Reds’ starter Dan Straily was able to keep the Pittsburgh Pirates batters in check as well. The Pirates were able to break through in the sixth inning though when they began the inning with an Andrew McCutchen single, a Gregory Polanco walk, and a Starling Marte bloop single to load the bases. Though the Pirates were able to take a 2-1 lead off a Francisco Cervelli sacrifice fly and a Jung Ho Kang run-scoring groundout, they would regret not taking this opportunity to break open the game.
The Reds tied it in the home half of the inning and took the lead in the seventh on solo home runs from Votto and Tucker Barnhart respectively. The Pirates’ best chance at tying the game came in the Ninth inning when Kang led the inning off with a double. However, Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, and David Freese were unable to bring him home and the Pirates dropped the series opener.
May 10: Pirates @ Reds
Postponed due to Rain
May 11: Pirates @ Reds
Winning Pitcher: Tony Watson (1-0)
Losing Pitcher: Ross Ohlendorf (3-4)
Save: Mark Melancon (10)
The Pirates were able to come from behind to get the win in this one. The Reds went up 1-0 in the first inning, but Andrew McCutchen tied it in the fourth inning with the first of what would become four home runs on the day for the Pirates. The Reds retook the lead on a Jay Bruce two-run home run in the Reds half of the inning, but David Freese hit a solo home run in the fifth to make it a 1-run game. The Reds got that run back in the bottom of the Fifth, but Jung Ho Kang and Josh Harrison hit Home Runs in the Seventh and Eighth innings to tie the game.
The Pirates got the winning run in the ninth when Jordy Mercer singled in Kang from third base. Mark Melancon put two runners on in the bottom of the ninth, but that was it as he picked up his 10th save.
May 13: Pirates @ Cubs
Win: Jason Hammel (5-0)
Loss: Francisco Liriano (3-2)
Francisco Liriano had a rough outing in the series opener against the Cubs, as he gave up 3 home runs, all with men on base. By the fifth inning it was 8-0 Cubs and the game was out of reach. Hitting home runs for the Cubs were Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, and David Ross. The Pirates were able to push a couple runs across in the sixth inning and Andrew McCutchen hit a two-run home run in the ninth inning, but it was too little too late.
May 14: Pirates @ Cubs
Win: Jake Arrieta (7-0)
Loss: Jeff Locke (1-3)
The Pittsburgh Pirates were finally able to get to Jake Arrieta a little, even if only for an inning. The Pirates were able to briefly take the lead in the fourth inning of this one when Francisco Cervelli hit a two-run single.
However, the Cubs immediately took the lead in the home half of the inning when Anthony Rizzo hit a three-run home run. The Cubs added three runs in the sixth inning and two runs in the eighth inning to provide the final score of 8-2.
Arrieta dominated Pirates batters, again, as a whole going 8 innings and giving up only 3 hits and 2 walks while striking out 11.
May 15: Pirates @ Cubs
Win: Gerrit Cole (4-3)
Loss: Jon Lester (4-2)
Save: Mark Melancon (11)
The Pittsburgh Pirates got their first win of the season against the Chicago Cubs in the series finale. Gerrit Cole looked like an ace for the first time this season, going 8 scoreless innings giving up only 3 hits and striking out 7.
His counterpart for Chicago, Jon Lester, was even more effective through the first six innings though, keeping the Pirates hitless through that time. The Pirates finally broke through in the seventh inning when Starling Marte singled with 1 out. Marte then stole second base and scored on a Jung Ho Kang double.
Kang wasn’t done as he provided an insurance run in the Ninth inning on a solo home run to give the Pirates a 2-0 lead. The insurance was needed as the Cubs finally got on the board in the bottom of the ninth. They would only get the one run though and the Pirates ended the series on a good note.
Pirate of the Week: Andrew McCutchen
Andrew McCutchen’s early season slump seems to be officially over. Over the last week, he went 7-for-21 which included two home runs and two doubles. His most notable game came in the series opener against the Cubs when he went 3 for 5 and hit a two-run home run in a losing effort.
Cutch has already improved his slash line from .226/.339/.441 at the beginning of May to .252/.348/.483 through this weekend. For the month of May he is slashing .333/.400/.622. Having McCutchen over his slump and batting more like his MVP caliber self is instrumental to the Pirates playoff aspirations.
Takeaways, Observations, and other Random Thoughts
Jon Niese’s Home Run Troubles
The three home runs he gave up on Monday were the most by Niese in a game so far this season. However, he has had issues with the long ball all season. He currently has been giving up home runs at an astronomical rate of 2.25 per 9 innings. For comparison, he has a career rate of 0.94 and had a rate of 1.02 in 2015 with the New York Mets.
Additionally, his home run to fly ball (HR/FB) rate is a horrendous 23.3% (the league average is 9.5%). HR/FB is a statistic with relatively little predictive value and something that the pitcher has little control over. It’s puzzling as to why Niese’s is so high, as PNC Park would never be mistaken for a hitter’s park. Because of this I’d take this as an example of a small sample size and it should hopefully regress to a more normal rate. Hopefully, this will mean that Niese will give up fewer overall home runs over the rest of the season, making him a much more effective starting pitcher than what we have seen so far.
The Pittsburgh Pirates had their second game of the season rained out, when the middle game of their three game series with the Cincinnati Reds was postponed. The Pirates had earlier had a game against the Colorado Rockies postponed. Though that game was rescheduled for a Pirates’ off day in the middle of a homestand in June for some reason, this game will likely be made up as part of a doubleheader when the Pirates visit Cincinnati next in September. Beyond this, having two rainouts over such a short span is unusual. Major League Baseball likes to avoid postponements if at all possible due to scheduling issues. That’s why lengthy delays are relatively common, but it’s also relatively rare to see a postponement. In the short term, this provided an opportunity for Clint Hurdle to re-balance the roster to a normal configuration of five bench spots and seven bullpen arms versus the four and eight respectively that the Pirates had had for the past month.
Pirates Finally Beat Cubs
After the Pirates not only failed to beat the Cubs in their first five attempts, but got demolished each time, I started to wonder if it was possible that the Pirates could go the whole season without beating them. Luckily I didn’t have to ponder that frightening thought very long as Gerrit Cole and Jung Ho Kang came to the rescue. Unfortunately, the Pirates are still 1-5 against the Cubs this season, but just beating them once (at Wrigley no less) at least breaks the streak and could help the Pirates get over a psychological barrier by showing that they can in fact beat them.
Will the Pirates storm back and end up winning the season series against the Cubs? That’s unlikely and I wouldn’t count on it, but if they go .500 against them the rest of the season, I’ll feel better about the Pirates’ odds of taking the Cubs down in a potential playoff series.
Jung Ho Kang’s Fast Start
Jung Ho Kang has now made six starts and played in eight games since returning from his knee injury last Friday. He already has four home runs, two of which have come in the last week including his solo shot Sunday that ended up being the winning run. For the season he is slashing .292/.357/.875. Though his slugging percentage will normalize, his batting average and on-base percentage should actually increase, as he currently has a .188 BABIP over the small sample size. It has become even more apparent over the week that Jung Ho Kang returning has made this a much better ball club. It’s also becoming more and more apparent that the Pirates’ signing of him last off-season may have been the steal of the decade.
Francisco Liriano’s Dissapointing Start
Francisco Liriano’s most recent start against the Cubs was a disappointment in that he appeared to have put his rough April behind him over his last several starts. The Cubs lit him up for three home runs and eight earned runs over only 4.2 innings pitched. Liriano also walked four, though he did strike out seven batters. Unsurprisingly, it took him 98 pitches to get through his 4.2 innings. Hopefully, Liriano will rebound in his next start against the Braves. I don’t think that this is indicative of any greater problem for Liriano, it was likely just a bad start versus a hot Cubs team. However, Liriano’s inconsistency this year has been infuriating at times. Though this inconsistency has played out on a larger level throughout the rotation at large.
Pirates’ Big Opportunity
The Pirates need to make the most of this upcoming homestand after going a relatively disappointing 4-4 during this road trip. It begins with four games against the Atlanta Braves, baseball’s worst team, before the Colorado Rockies, whom the Pirates are 3-0 against this season, come to visit this weekend. The home stand finishes with the Arizona Diamondbacks, last in the NL West, coming for 3 games next week. The teams coming to visit are a combined 45-68, a winning percentage of .398. The Pirates must make the most of this opportunity, with bad teams coming and the Pirates at home, to make up ground on the Cubs and/or gain separation from the Cardinals in the standings.
Coming up this week: The Pirates begin a ten game homestand with four games against the Atlanta Braves and then welcome the Colorado Rockies for three games over the weekend.
*Stats from Fangraphs, espn.com, and mlb.com