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Pirates 5, Cubs 4: So close

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The Cubs had their chances, but dropped the first of a two-game set to the Bucs.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Cubs’ 5-4 loss to the Pirates Tuesday night turned on two plays.

The first was Justin Wilson’s first pitch in the eighth inning being launched into the right-field seats by Gregory Polanco. That turned a 4-3 deficit into a 5-3 deficit, and that run would prove to be very important.

That was important because in the ninth inning, pinch-hitter David Bote led off with a single. And then the second important play happened [VIDEO].

Addison Russell’s long drive scored Bote to make it 5-4, and Russell was called safe on the field with a triple. But it was one of those “the hand is ever-so-briefly off the base” situations, and the call on the field was overturned. Now, there’s no guarantee that Russell would have scored the tying run, but it’s quite a different situation to have the tying run on third with nobody out in the ninth, as opposed to having bases empty, one out. Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist were retired and that, as they say, was that.

Joe Maddon was not happy with that overturned call:

“I’d like to see the definitive replay on that last play,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I didn’t see it. The call on the field has integrity. I don’t know why (it was reviewed). I really need to see why that was changed.”

Maddon watched replays after the game and said he saw no clear-cut evidence Russell was out, but he was told “theoretically” (Russell) came off the bag.

“Theoretically”? That’s a new one. Russell also insisted he was safe:

“In that situation, (bleep) it, why not just go to third?” Russell said. “I obviously beat the throw in there, so it all just came down to that video.

“There’s this in-between thing, the switch of hands. But I just didn’t think there was enough evidence to call me out there.”

I have to agree with Russell. It’s supposed to be definitive evidence. On the TV broadcast, Len Kasper tried to explain it by saying there had to be angles available to the review crew that they didn’t have, but ... I dunno, these things are supposed to be definitive to overturn, and I didn’t see “definitive.”

But what’s done is done, and the Cubs had a tough loss.

Jon Lester struggled through the first couple of innings, again, as has been the case for so many Cubs starters recently, running up long counts and high pitch counts even while not allowing any runs through two.

In the third, Polanco singled with two out and then David Freese hit a ball that missed being a home run by about two feet. Polanco scored to make it 1-0, and Francisco Cervelli then smacked a line drive to left that left the premises, about the shortest home run you can hit at PNC Park. It sneaked into the first row in left field right at the foul pole, and it’s 3-0 Pirates.

The Cubs got those three runs back in a hurry. Zobrist doubled and Jason Heyward singled leading off the fourth, and that brought up Javier Baez [VIDEO].

Javy’s 22nd of the season tied the game and gave him 82 RBI. That leads the National League in that stat, for whatever that’s worth. Fun fact:

Two outs later, Willson Contreras hit a ball about as far as you can hit it in PNC Park without it being a home run:

And the next batter was Lester, who hit a screaming line drive that was caught by Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer. Lester slammed his helmet down in frustration — he thought he had an RBI single.

The Pirates scored another run in the fifth after Lester had retired the first two hitters. He walked Polanco, then Freese hit another double. Another run might have scored on the next play, a single by Francisco Cervelli, if not for this great throw by Ian Happ [VIDEO].

Happ, not known for his defense, made an outstanding throw (and tumbled over after doing it) and Contreras made a perfect tag to keep the score 4-3 at the time.

Baez led off the sixth with a double, but was stranded. And Lester had to be lifted after five innings as he’d thrown 101 pitches, only 59 for strikes. MLB-wide this year, 63.7 percent of pitches have been thrown for strikes. Cubs pitchers rank 29th in strike percentage at 61.7. Last year Cubs pitchers ranked 27th in strike percentage, but in 2016 they were tied for 12th. Simply put, Cubs pitchers have to throw more strikes.

Steve Cishek threw a scoreless sixth, then Tommy La Stella led off the seventh with a pinch single, his 16th pinch hit of 2018. But Russell hit into a double play. Rizzo was then hit by a pitch, and that one looked painful, but he stayed in the game. Zobrist walked, but Heyward struck out to end the inning.

Jesse Chavez threw a scoreless seventh, the Cubs couldn’t score in the eighth, Wilson gave up the homer, and that’s where we came in on this recap.

Simply, the Cubs are playing “no margin for error” baseball. Too many pitches from Lester, good bullpen work ruined by the solo homer by Polanco, and then an overturned call that might have changed the outcome. I certainly don’t fault Russell for trying for third on that hit. He beat the throw and the video I saw didn’t look like the call could be definitively overturned.

But it was, and the game was lost. With the Brewers defeating the Dodgers 1-0, the Cubs and Brewers begin today in a virtual tie for first place in the N.L. Central, both teams 16 games over .500, the Cubs barely ahead by two percentage points, .575 to .573.

So it will be up to Cole Hamels, in his first Cubs start, to try to help the Cubs gain a split of this brief two-game series. Nick Kingham will go for the Pirates. Game time Wednesday night is 6:05 p.m. CT and TV coverage will be on WGN.