Mark Melancon imploded in the 9th inning as the Pirates blew a late three-run lead and lost their second straight to the Cubs, 9-8.
The Pirates had taken an 8-5 lead in the bottom of the 7th on Jung-Ho Kang's bases-clearing double. After Tony Watson gave up a homer to Wellington Castillo in the 8th, Melancon came on to face the heart of the Cubs' order with a two-run lead. It didn't last long, as Melancon failed to retire any of the first four hitters he faced. He loaded the bases on a single, double and walk, then allowed a two-run single to Starlin Castro. The Cubs' winning run later came in on a groundout. Melancon was back to throwing only 88-89 mph and it's becoming increasingly likely that the Pirates are faced with the same situation they faced early last year with Jason Grilli.
Francisco Liriano had an inconsistent start. He gave up only three hits and two walks over five innings, while fanning nine, but it took him 97 pitches to get that far. He started the game by walking and hitting the first two batters, but got out of that inning with only one run scoring. He again walked the leadoff hitter in the 3rd and gave up a single to the next hitter. An error by Corey Hart at first brought in one run, then a weak, ground ball single by Castro, who had four RBIs, brought in another.
The Pirates had scored single runs in the 1st and 2nd on HRs by Josh Harrison and Starling Marte, their second and fifth, respectably. They took a 5-4 lead in the bottom of the 6th (Radhames Liz had served up a long HR to Castro in the top half). The inning started off with two walks; hopefully, the Pirates' analytics department will point out to the hitters that good things can happen when you don't hit the ball. Marte eventually drove in one run with a single. Francisco Cervelli plated two more with a two-out single up the middle.
The bullpen and defense blew that lead in the 7th when Jared Hughes gave up two two-out ground ball singles and Josh Harrison then muffed another grounder. It could have gotten worse when the next batter singled, but Gregory Polanco threw out Kris Bryant at home on a disputed call.
The Pirates seemingly set Kang up to be the hero by loading the bases with two out in the bottom of the inning. Kang, who finished 2-4, lined a 96-mph fastball over Dexter Fowler's head in center to drive in three. But then Melancon happened.
Two things seem increasingly clear now. One is that the Cubs' lineup looks potentially fearsome. That problem could get worse if Addison Russell gets acclimated. He went 0-5 with three strikeouts in his debut, although he did line out off Melancon for the last out in the 9th.
The other is that the Pirates have a closer issue to address. With John Holdzkom struggling in AAA and Arquimedes Caminero still more of a question mark than anything else, the bullpen is suddenly looking very shaky.