If you're too young to remember the 1950s or 1960s, Sunday's game at Wrigley Field was, at least for the first seven innings, a true throwback-type game, and not just for the great-looking 1953 uniforms.
The Pirates and Cubs completed seven innings in a smidge under two hours, and I can't remember the last time I saw seven full innings at Wrigley Field without a lineup or pitching change by either team. Hitters were putting balls in play, pitchers were throwing strikes, and the pace of the game was excellent.
Pittsburgh scored the two runs they'd need for a 2-1 win over the Cubs in the second inning. Travis Snider led off with a home run off Jason Hammel, who then issued his only walk, to Pirates backup catcher Chris Stewart. After a sacrifice bunt and an infield out advanced Stewart to third, a sharp grounder by Josh Harrison went off Hammel's leg. With Polanco's great speed, no one could throw him out and the second run scored.
At the time, it didn't seem like such a huge deal, but Bucs rookie pitcher Brandon Cumpton dominated Cubs hitters, also completing seven innings. He gave up two singles and issued two walks and only one Cubs runner -- Hammel himself, after a single -- got past first base through the first seven innings. A tip o' the cap to Cumpton, who was outstanding. Sometimes the other guy just is better on any given day -- that was Cumpton Sunday afternoon. Hammel threw seven innings, allowing six hits and two earned runs. Since the start of the 2012 season, there have been 124 starts where a pitcher has put up that exact line. Their teams have won 76 of them, or 61 percent. Sunday, the Cubs just came up against a better pitcher.
The pace slowed down a bit after the seventh, which isn't unusual with relief and pinch-hitting moves. The Cubs used four pinch-hitters in the eighth inning. That's a lot. Consider that in all of Cubs history, they have used more than four pinch-hitters in an entire game only 86 times. All the managerial moves produced a pair of singles and a sacrifice by Travis Wood, putting the runners in scoring position with one out. Unfortunately, Pirates reliever Tony Watson struck out Welington Castillo and Justin Ruggiano -- both of whom were pinch-hitting -- to end the inning.
Which brings up an interesting point. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle obviously knew that his Cubs counterpart, Rick Renteria, had only right-handed pinch-hitters remaining on his bench (the only one who didn't get into the game was Mike Olt). Yet he left Watson in to face both Castillo and Ruggiano, rather than do the reflexive thing so many managers do today, call in a righthander, knowing that Renteria couldn't counter with a lefthanded batter. Watson doesn't show much of a platoon differential in his career (.563 OPS vs. LHB, .624 vs. RHB), and that's the kind of relievers I'd like to see the Cubs have more of -- guys who can retire hitters who hit from either side of the plate.
The Cubs pen did a decent job in relief of Hammel, though Neil Ramirez got himself into trouble with a pair of walks. He got out of them with a couple of infield fielder's choices, including a sharply-hit ball to Starlin Castro that Castro turned into a tag play by throwing to Luis Valbuena at third.
In the ninth, Pirates new closer Mark Melancon gave up two sharp singles to lead off the inning, putting the tying run on base. After a strikeout, Nate Schierholtz grounded into what might have been a game-ending double play, but Josh Harrison's throw to second was high. Second-base umpire Bob Davidson ruled Castro out at second. Renteria immediately asked for a review, but the call was correct -- shortstop Jordy Mercer's foot came down on the base just before Castro's foot got there. It was one of the fastest, if not the fastest, reviews I have seen this season. Anthony Rizzo scored on the play to ruin the Pirates' shutout bid.
Junior Lake hit a ball that on another day might have had a shot at the seats in right field, but it was a day with wind blowing in strongly off Lake Michigan (not to mention some thick fog that came close to, but never quite got to, Wrigley)... so the lake robbed Lake, and the ball settled into Polanco's glove to end it.
As I said -- sometimes the other guy just plays better. The Pirates have a good bullpen and Cumpton, who has struggled at times since his callup, had the best start of his career. The Cubs lost two of three to the Pirates, who still might make a run at a wild card spot this year, but didn't play badly. And that's a positive thing.
Once again, the Cubs outdid themselves on the 1953 throwback uniforms, every detail correct. The cream color looks great on them. Wouldn't mind this one (along with the "CHICAGO" jerseys they wore in Philadelphia) as an alternate uniform going forward. (Just for fun I've added the Cubs' record wearing various uniforms to the Cubs schedule/results page which is always on the front page under "REALLY IMPORTANT BCB STUFF.") The high, striped socks looked great. Too bad the Pirates didn't really play along -- none of their players wore high socks, and the "PITTSBURGH" road jersey, while authentic to 1953, didn't look that much different than the 2014 Pirates gray road uniform.
Weather permitting, (yes, again there's a pretty good chance of storms) the Cubs will take on the Reds in the first of a three-game series at Wrigley Monday night. Jeff Samardzija will face Alfredo Simon. You can bet that any scouts in attendance Sunday to watch Hammel, will probably be around again to watch Shark's outing.