After the Pirates suffered a fifth consecutive drubbing by the mighty Chicago Cubs yesterday, they got exactly what they needed today: an ace-like performance from their putative ace, Gerrit Cole, and two huge extra-base hits from their resurrected slugger, Jung-Ho Kang.
For much of the game, the story was Cubs' starter Jon Lester, who did not surrender a Pirates hit until Starling Marte's one-out single in the seventh. Marte's hit broke a string of 16 consecutive batters retired by Lester and was the first Pirates hit against Cubs pitchers since the fourth inning of the Saturday game against Jake Arrieta. Marte stole second with Francisco Cervelli at the plate, putting their first runner of the day in scoring position, and then, after Cervelli struck out, Kang had the first of two huge hits, an emphatic double off the ivy in deep right center scoring the game's first run.
In this epic pitcher's duel, Cole had matched Lester through six, and with greater pitch-count efficiency. His command and velocity were outstanding, and only one of the three hits he gave up in his eight innings was well struck, a double by Ben Zobrist in the fourth. Cole was supported by crisp defense from his teammates (with the exception of one pop-up lost in the sun) and a generous strike zone and in-blowing cold wind in Wrigley that aided both pitchers. These assets helped him to thoroughly dominate the Cubs' intimidating lineup with the best pitching performance they have seen all year. Cole worked into the eighth--the first Pirates starter to do so this season--and retired the last 13 Cubs he faced consecutively. His velocity still registered 95-96 mph against the last batter he faced, pinch hitter Miguel Montero, who became his seventh strikeout victim against no walks.
Down by one in the top of the ninth, Cubs manager Joe Maddon elected to bring in his heretofore untouchable closer, Héctor Rondon, to face the Pirates as the fourth Cubs pitcher of the day. But Kang struck again with a deep fly that reached the third row of the outfield seats. It was his fourth homer since returning to the team from his horrific leg injury, and it gave the Pirates a 2-0 lead.
The run proved critical in a tense bottom of the ninth. Clint Hurdle pinch hit for Cole in the top of the ninth and brought in Mark Melancon, who began the bottom of the ninth by walking Dexter Fowler. Fowler moved to third on a single by Jason Heyward, and the Cubs had the tying run at first base with no outs. But Melancon retired Kris Bryant on a pop-up to center, Anthony Rizzo on a sacrifice fly to right field, and Ben Zobrist on a ground-out with Heyward on second for the final out.
A much-needed, encouraging win for the good guys, who may not be done just yet.