Pitchers' duel at the bottom of an ant hill
Clint Hurdle described the scene as an "ant hill," as fans were piled high up on the roof tops surrounding Wrigley Field on this brisk, mostly sunny, afternoon. The streets were festive, the bars loaded and the creaky old park echoed with the comforting hum of hundreds of conversations. Before the game even started, there were few other places you could imagine being better.
Then Gerrit Cole and Jon Lester treated everyone to a good old fashioned pitchers' duel. And when you take into account all the storylines surrounding this game — the Cubs dominating start and their complete control of the Pirates this month, Cole's recent struggles against this lineup and the seemingly ever present possibility that one hit batsman could turn everything sideways — it was edge of the seat stuff.
In a game that the Pirates needed their ace to make a statement, Cole was masterful. After two consecutive rough outings against the Cubs, including last year's wild card game, in which he seemed to allow his emotions to run away with him, Cole was the Platonic ideal of controlled intensity. His fastball darted and slammed home precisely where he aimed. His slider menaced Cubs hitters by cutting hard and late. And the occasional curveball kept everything honest.
"He was sharp, man, really sharp," Hurdle said. "To go eight strong like that, wonderful day for him."
If you expected some relief, or giddiness, or celebration from Cole afterwards, you'd be way off. Staring straight ahead providing only short and concise answers, the right-hander appeared still very much in whatever emotional zone that had helped him plow through the Cubs' lineup.
What worked today?
"Good fastball location."
Cole's final pitching line is model of efficient domination: 95 pitches, 65 strikes, 11 strikeouts, no walks in eight innings. He allowed two scratch hits and a double.
"We needed to try to get out of here and salvage the series," Cole said. "It was a good effort by everybody. Obviously, Jung-Ho [Kang] came up big."
Kang twice comes up big...twice
Lester carried a no-hitter into the seventh, when Starling Marte finally singled into right field. He scored two batters later on a Kang double.
With the Pirates clinging to a 1-0 lead in the top of the ninth, Kang drilled a solo home run up into the left field bleachers.
"This is a special guy," Hurdle said of Kang. "When he does things it's not like I'm one who says that is unbelievable. No, it's believable, because he keeps doing things that shows you he is quality ballplayer."
Ninth inning decision
Even with Cole cruising along, Hurdle decided to go with Mark Melancon to pitch the ninth. After Dexter Fowler led off the inning with a walk and Jason Heyward followed with a single, there wasn't a Pirates fan around who felt comfortable.
But Melancon found his way through and afterwards Hurdle didn't understand why there was any fuss about his decision to go with his closer.
"I'm sure [Cole] could have gone 110 [pitches]," Hurdle said. "I really like our closer. I seem to like him more than anybody. Give the ball to somebody who I think is as good as any closer in the game. I'm a big fan of getting two good marks at the end of the game when I can."
And, finally, as if this rivalry needed anymore intensity, Cole contributed a nice little quote that is sure to draw some attention.
He was asked how it important it was to get a win against "the best team in baseball?"
In the middle of answering the question, as an aside, he said, "I don't really think they are the best team in baseball."
On the one hand, there isn't much to the quote because presumably, and rightfully, he should feel that the team for which he plays is the best team in the league. On the other hand, with emotions between the teams and fanbases running a little high, it does add to the rivalry and make the fun summer ahead even more interesting.