One thing you can say with certainty about the Cubs' 2-1 loss to the Pirates on Sunday: it was well worth the entertainment dollar.
Gerrit Cole was dealing from the first inning on. Jon Lester no-hit the Pirates into the seventh inning. Two excellent pitchers shutting down two pretty good offenses.
But in the end, even with all the great pitching, Jung Ho Kang won the game for the Pirates. He hit an RBI double off Lester in the seventh and a homer off Hector Rondon in the ninth, the latter the difference in the 2-1 score. It was a rare failure for Rondon and the first time he had been removed from a game in the middle of an inning this year.
The Cubs actually had an excellent chance to score in the first inning. Dexter Fowler popped a ball just behind second base, but three Pirate fielders couldn't find it [VIDEO] and it dropped for a double. Unfortunately, the next three Cubs were retired by Cole. Jason Heyward struck out, Kris Bryant popped up foul and Anthony Rizzo flied to center.
That was really the best chance the Cubs had off Cole. He threw seven more innings and allowed just two more hits, a single by Addison Russell with one out in the second and a two-out double by Ben Zobrist in the fourth, after which he retired the last 13 Cubs he faced. Hats off to Cole, who is, after all, an outstanding pitcher. He was dealing all afternoon.
Meanwhile, so was Lester. He issued a walk in the first and another in the second but no hits until Starling Marte hit a one-out single in the seventh, after which Lester received a nice ovation. He was helped out by this nice diving grab by Russell [VIDEO] in the fifth, but the game went scoreless into that seventh inning. After Marte's hit, Lester struck out Francisco Cervelli, but Kang hit a ball into the gap in right-center for an RBI double.
Adam Warren and Pedro Strop shut the Pirates down for the remainder of the seventh and eighth, but the Cubs still couldn't do anything with Cole, and then Kang hit a 3-2, one-out slider into the left-center field bleachers to make it 2-0.
Hector threw six straight sliders to Kang before trying a 97 mile per hour fastball on pitch number seven. He's often successful with pitches like that, but got it middle-in instead of up and Kang jumped on it. A pop fly to right by Josh Harrison and a walk by Rondon brought Travis Wood into the game. He retired the only hitter he faced and Joe Maddon brought Justin Grimm in to face the righthanded Jordy Mercer. Mercer walked, but then Grimm struck out Andrew McCutchen (who went 0-for-5 in this game after going 4-for-9 with a homer in the first two games of the series) to end the inning.
At 2-0, the Cubs still had a chance, especially with Cole out of the game. Mark Melancon is a fine closer, but he had pitched just once in the last seven days, and the Cubs were one of the few teams able to solve him last year (five runs in 10 innings, and one of his two blown saves).
And the inning started out promisingly, with a walk to Fowler -- the only walk the Cubs had in this one -- and a single by Heyward. Bryant flied to center, not deep enough for anyone to advance, and Rizzo hit a sacrifice fly, breaking the shutout.
Heyward stole second while Zobrist batted, putting the tying run in scoring position, and with the crowd (most of whom stuck around) loud and on its feet, Zobrist scooted a grounder that for a moment, looked like it might slice through the shift and score Heyward. Harrison, though, got to it and threw Zobrist out to end it.
Entertaining, and the Cubs never gave up, not to the last out, and this is what we've come to expect from this team, whether they're winning a blowout or locked in a tight battle like this one. The series preview turned out to be somewhat prescient:
... the Pirates have Jung Ho Kang back, and he's started hot, with three home runs in his first five games.
The Cubs shut Kang down in the first two games, but he drove in both runs in this game with two extra-base hits.
But if the Cubs get pitching performances like this from Lester all the time (and they have, most of this year so far), they'll win just about all of the games he starts. And tip your cap to Cole. He was outstanding.
Cubs walk watch: just one in this game, Fowler in the ninth inning. That makes 182 in 36 games, or 5.06 per game. Pace: 819.
It was warmer Sunday than Saturday... but not much. Clouds mixed with sun, and when the sun went away the wind, this time off Lake Michigan, was still a bit biting. Hopefully, when the Cubs return home 12 days from now, spring and/or summer will have finally arrived.
In the meantime, the Cubs take off for a nine-game road trip that begins Tuesday evening in Milwaukee. Kyle Hendricks will face Chase Anderson. And with 48 hours to go before the Cubs' next game, we'll have plenty here at BCB to discuss -- so c'mon by over the next couple of days.