For about 15 minutes it looked like a new and refreshing narrative would evolve out of this one. But then Jake Arrieta plunked Jung-Ho Kang in the back, Anthony Rizzo dropped a three-run home run into the right field bleachers and an inning later Addison Russell added on two more runs with a drive to left and, just like that, it was more of the same.
The Pirates held a 2-0 lead with one out and a man on third in the top of the fourth. At precisely the moment that Arrieta was looking vulnerable, however, he began the process of reasserting his dominance by rearing back and hitting Kang with a 92 MPH fastball. While he may not have intended to hit him, and Joe Maddon said afterwards that it was just a "unfortunate" by-product of "command issues," the hit batsman was the beginning of five innings of Cubs' domination. That it all started with an aggressive pitch perfectly symbolizes the authoritative manner that the Cubs are bullying the Pirates this month.
Right after Kang was hit, Josh Harrison hit a liner up the middle that took a lucky bounce off of Arrieta's foot and into a double play. The Pirates didn't get another hit the rest of the game and seven of the next 13 batters struck out.
"I guess that they didn't get hit after that point," Arrieta said of the fourth. "I was able to do some things to eliminate any further damage. I really settled in and was working really well with Miguel [Montero] today."
Watching Arrieta reclaim control of a game is a sight to behold. After each strike out he immediately turns his back on the hitter and takes a short, brisk walk around the mound. The batter becomes almost a sympathetic figure, as he lingers at the plate before slowly walking back to the dugout powerless and seemingly rendered irrelevant in the mind of the man with whom he was in intimate combat. When the inning ends, Arrieta marches off the field like a man totally in command of the scene. There is no hint of satisfaction, or enthusiasm or faux disinterest. The inning is done and the hitters are deposed and forgotten.
After the top of the fourth came to a close, the Cubs' offense came to life against Jeff Locke. Over the next five innings they pounded out 10 hits and eight runs.
"They got on top and were able to add on and create separation," Clint Hurdle said. "I thought Jeff was really good through three, and then there were couple mistakes and couple elevated pitches that they took advantage of."
Locke said that it felt like a "tale of two games."
"When the action happened for them, it happened quick," he said. "Other than that we did a nice job of keeping them off base and definitely got in a little bit of a rhythm there for a little while."
The Pirates have now lost eight of their last 11 games after starting the season 15-9. They drop to nine games behind the Cubs and have been outscored by their division rivals 37-11. Chicago's 27-8 record is the best start through 35 games since the 1984 Detroit Tigers went 30-5.
"I think they are having the type of start that they dreamed of having," Locke said. "It's going to take a team, us, any team, to kind of get in their way and put a foot down."
Gerrit Cole starts tomorrow and it would be a good time for the Pirates' number one starter to put the metaphorical foot down in this matchup, because right now the Cubs are having their way and they are on the cusp of blowing out to a 10 game lead.
Back to Kang's hit by pitch.
Clint Hurdle showed had no interest in discussing the play or guessing at intent.
"I'm not good in judging intent," Hurdle said. "You judge intent."
Locke seemed more willing to hazard a guess. He said there are certain assumptions that players make when a guy like Arrieta hits a batter.
"That one didn't just spin away," Locke said. "He's been pretty sharp all year. Maybe that one got away from him in. That's not something I know. I don't know what happened on the pitch. It got him pretty [flush] though, and it just seems that a guy like that with pinpoint accuracy that he has, doesn't just miss in."
Locke ended up hitting Montero with a pitch in the bottom of the sixth, which prompted home plate umpire Brian Knight to issue warnings to both benches.
"I don't see where he could see there was any intent on that pitch, it was 0-2 [count]," Locke said. "I pitch in as much as anyone in the big leagues. There was not intent by me on that pitch to hit anybody. There is no way you want to put another person on base."
As mentioned, Maddon blamed poor command for Kang's HBP.
"The only people that are going to read into that is somebody who wants to," Maddon said. "And why would we ever want to hit [Kang] based on what happened last year? That makes no sense. There are no dots to connect."
He also didn't think there was anything behind Locke hitting Montero.
Strike zone debate
Ray Searage was tossed from the game in the fourth after a series of close pitches in the inning didn't go Locke's way.
"That's why we love Ray so much," Locke said. "He's got our back, just like we've got his."
Locke went back at the footage of the pitches in questions and now believes that they were properly called.