After the Pirates dropped two out of three games against the Phillies earlier this week, there were a few signs of incipient panic among fans wary of past seasons' collapses. Francisco Liriano did his best to quell those concerns by turning in a complete-game four-hitter against Chicago this afternoon.
Liriano seemed to be almost toying with the Cubs. Even though he came into the game as a career .088 hitter, he drove in the game's first run in the top of the second with a two-out single, following a double by Russ Martin and a two-out intentional walk to Jordy Mercer. He then spotted the Cubs a 2-1 lead in the bottom half of the inning via a home run by Scott Hairston, but slammed the door after that point and threw seven more scoreless innings to close things out.
The game turned the Pirates' way once and for all in the top of the third inning. Marte started things off with a single, and then Walker hit a line drive to right-center. It would probably have been a hit no matter what, but Cubs center fielder Dave Sappelt took a strange route to the ball and let it slip past him on the bounce. It rolled all the way to the wall, Marte cruised home easily, and Walker ended up on third with a triple. McCutchen followed with a walk, and Garrett Jones hit a line-drive single to bring Walker home and give the Pirates a lead that they would hold for the remainder of the game.
Pedro flew out to left field and it seemed like the Cubs might be able to limit the damage to a one-run deficit, but a back-breaking play was only one batter away. Martin came up with Jones on first and Cutch on third, worked his way to a 3-2 count, and then swung through a third strike for the inning's second out. Jones was running with the pitch, however, and catcher Dioner Navarro's throw was off-line to the glove side and very high, nearly tailing off into center field. Darwin Barney had to make a flying leap to pull it down, Jones was safe at second, and to add injury to insult, McCutchen came home easily on a delayed double steal. At that point, you could see the energy go out of the Cubs, and it was all over except for the final box score.
Several members of the Cubs had days that they would like to forget, with Navarro near the front of the group. In addition to the double steal in the third, he also allowed Marte to pick up two stolen bases of his own (Starling would finish the day 3-for-6), and on the latter of those he smacked his throwing arm against McCutchen's bat on the back-swing, necessitating a brief eighth-inning delay and a visit from the trainer. Noted Bucco-killer Jeff Samardzija had only surrendered a career .158/.210/.230 batting line against Pirates hitters in prior games, but he coughed up nine hits and five walks in six innings to take the loss in a game he'd probably cheerfully consign to the memory hole. Struggling shortstop Starlin Castro, who struck out in the first and sixth, allowed the Pirates' fifth run to score when he failed to make a play on a ball hit by Jose Tabata. He then provided a fittingly frustrating coda for Cubs fans by hitting a two-out double in the bottom of the eighth, and immediately wrenched that sliver of hope away by getting picked off of second base on a terrific throw by Martin.