The Cubs’ 18-6 record after this game gave them a four-game lead in the N.L. Central, and you’ll see just how dominant that record was, later in this recap.
While several of the recaps of the Cubs' 7-2 win over the Pirates will focus on the (in my opinion) nonexistent beanball war between the teams, or the mind game Joe Maddon tried to play on the Bucs with his challenge after their challenge in the seventh inning, what I want to point out is the determined, almost clinical way the Cubs dismantled the Pirates in this one.
It didn't start out that way. Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates' second batter of the game, homered on Jason Hammel's 10th pitch. That didn't set a good tone, but the Cubs only took two more innings before answering. Dexter Fowler led off the third with a walk, and two outs later Anthony Rizzo doubled him in. A subsequent single by Ben Zobrist scored Rizzo and gave the Cubs the lead they would not relinquish.
The Cubs extended their lead to 6-1 with a four-run fifth. Again, all the runs scored after two were out. The second out was a sacrifice fly scoring Kris Bryant, who had walked. The Cubs loaded the bases when Addison Russell was hit by a pitch and Matt Szczur walked. David Ross singled in two runs, and then Szczur scored [VIDEO] on a play where Ross took off for second, trying to buy enough time for Matt to get home. It worked -- nice baserunning on Ross' part -- and for a short time, anyway, it looked like Szczur would be credited with a steal of home, even though Josh Harrison's throw went way over Francisco Cervelli's head. A bit later, the Pittsburgh official scorer, apparently trying to protect Gerrit Cole's ERA, changed the call to an error on Harrison.
Personally? I'd have scored it a steal of home, as it appeared to me that Szczur would have beaten even a good throw to the plate.
Somewhere in this sequence, Szczur suffered a minor injury:
Szczur left game due to tight right hamstring— Mark Gonzales (@MDGonzales) May 3, 2016
Zobrist moved to right field to replace Szczur, the first time Ben has played any position for the Cubs other than second base. Javier Baez took over at second. Here's hoping Szczur is OK, because with Jason Heyward sitting out this one with a sore wrist, any injury to Matt (who's playing as well as he has at any time in his big-league career) would be a tough break, not to mention leaving the team a bit shorthanded.
Hammel wasn't as sharp as he had been in other starts this year, allowing one more run in the fifth inning. He was removed when he hit Starling Marte to lead off the sixth. This, for some reason, was taken as "retaliation" for Cole hitting Russell earlier in the game, and Kyle Lobstein then hit Zobrist in the seventh, causing warnings to be issued to both benches. I can't imagine a situation where, in May, in the first game between two teams in a given season, that any manager would order "retaliation" for a hit batter in a game that wasn't close. (Zobrist eventually scored the Cubs' final run on a wild pitch.)
Plus, Joe Maddon has said many times he doesn't roll that way. I agree with Maddon. There's no need for anything like that in baseball, in my opinion. Hit batters happen, it's part of the game, and no one should be throwing intentionally at anyone.
Here's the Cubs' seventh-inning double-play attempt that resulted in a challenge from Clint Hurdle, followed by a challenge by Maddon (apparently regarding the slide into second by Jordy Mercer):
By then the game was pretty much decided, anyway, and Maddon was probably just playing mind games with Hurdle. Justin Grimm struck out the next two hitters to end the inning. Overall the Cubs' pen did its job again: Grimm, Adam Warren, Pedro Strop and Travis Wood combined for four shutout innings, allowing two singles and two walks and striking out six.
Cubs walk watch: Five more in this one. It was the 16th time in 24 games that the Cubs have walked at least five times. The season total is now 129, or 5.38 per game. Pace: 871.
Further, even though the Cubs scored seven times in this game (10th time in 24 games they've scored at least seven), it could have been a lot more, as they left 11 runners on base (3-for-19 with RISP, and that's a very large number of at-bats with RISP). The team run differential improved to +83, and as good as the 18-6 record is, it's underperforming the Pythagorean projection of 20-4.
The attendance at this one was announced as 18,376, but it looked like maybe one-third that many were in the seats, undoubtedly because of the Pittsburgh Penguins playoff game happening about a mile away across the Allegheny River at the Consol Energy Center. The Penguins won, so Pittsburgh fans could be happy about that, anyway, while Cubs fans came away satisfied with yet another win over the Bucs at PNC Park, their fifth straight win in Pittsburgh (including the 2015 wild-card game).
So the Cubs take the first game of this series, and in so doing defeat the Pirates' best pitcher, while having their two top starters in line to go for the remaining two contests. That's a real good sign for yet another series win. The Cubs remain the only team in the major leagues that has not lost consecutive games. As noted in the game preview last night, the team record for such things is 33 games into the season, set in 1907. Lots of things are happening now that haven't happened in a very long time. Why not add this one to the list?