Just as the Cubs did Friday night, they gave up solo home runs. It's always good, if you're going to give up dingers, to allow them with no one on base. One home run each hit off Scott Baker and James Russell. Not too bad, right?
Well... wrong, because the Cubs failed to score anything after the first inning, and thus lost to the Pirates 2-1. They could have possibly scored more runs in the first inning after Starlin Castro led off the game with a single and Anthony Rizzo walked. Nate Schierholtz doubled, scoring Castro, but Rizzo was thrown out at the plate attempting to score the second run on the play.
Those kind of things don't seem all that important in the first inning -- after all, you've just scored a run and taken an early lead -- but don't they always seem to come back and bite the Cubs?
You've been watching this team a long time. Of course they do, and the Cubs managed just three more hits the rest of the game.
The good news about this game was Scott Baker, who put together another solid start despite not having outstanding velocity. He never really has been a fireballing pitcher; his repertoire has been to keep the ball in the ballpark via routine fly balls. Unfortunately, one of those fly balls -- a home run by Jose Tabata -- tied the game in the sixth inning as Baker was running out of gas. Other than that, Baker was quite effective; he allowed just two other hits, both singles, didn't walk anyone, and threw 54 strikes in 75 pitches. He'll get one more start before the season ends, and although two starts is a very small sample size, I think I'd re-sign him to an incentive-based contract for 2014.
Then there's James Russell, who has now served up four home runs in his last eight innings. (Talk about running out of gas. Russell is leading the major leagues with 73 appearances, although he's thrown far fewer innings than he did in 2012, due to being used as a LOOGY fairly often in 2013.) The solo shot off Russell by former Cub Marlon Byrd -- who has to be about the luckiest player in baseball, having a career year and being traded from an also-ran to a possible division champion -- was the decisive blow in the game. (I do wish Byrd would button his jersey all the way to the top. Looks sloppy, Marlon.)
So, another loss. We're used to them. At least this one allowed the Pirates to move back into a tie for the division lead, following the Cardinals' loss to the Mariners. This race looks like it's going to go down to the proverbial wire; the Cardinals and Pirates don't meet again, but they will in a tiebreaker game if they tie for the division title (since both would likely qualify for the playoffs anyway).
One final note: it is sobering to notice that the Pirates have scored just five more runs this season than the Cubs have (577-572). The Pirates' standing is almost completely due to their pitching -- they rank second in the National League in fewest runs allowed (532). The Cubs rank ninth (624). The Pirates' record is seven games above their Pythagorean projection (86-62, compared to the projection of 79-69). The Cubs are five games worse than their projection (63-85, compared to the projection of 68-80).
Perhaps there isn't that much difference between these teams after all; with better bullpen work, the 2013 Cubs could have at least been somewhat closer to the .500 mark. Here's hoping to better times ahead.
The series will conclude with a game you likely won't be watching, as the Bears play at almost the same time (noon for the Bears, 12:35 for the Cubs). It'll be a matchup of lefthanders who have posted fine seasons -- Travis Wood and Francisco Liriano. The game preview will post at 11 a.m. CT.