The Bucs fell 6-5 after a poor outing by Jon Niese Sunday, allowing the Cubs to escape Pittsburgh with a win before the end of the first half.
The two teams seesawed their way through the first several inning, with the Pirates almost scoring runs quickly enough to keep up with the rate at which Niese was giving them up. Niese allowed a series of singles that led to two runs for the Cubs in the first, with an assist to Andrew McCutchen, who let one of those singles bounce off his glove. But the Bucs came back for three runs in the second as Sean Rodriguez hit his 10th (!) homer of the year, Adam Frazier singled, the red-hot Eric Fryer doubled, and John Jaso singled.
The Cubs quickly tied the game in the third. Niese walked Kris Bryant, then allowed a double by Anthony Rizzo on a fly ball that Frazier misjudged. Willson Contreras then brought home Bryant on a groundout. In the bottom of the inning, though, the Pirates retook the lead on a solo shot by McCutchen, his 14th homer of the season.
Niese quickly coughed up another lead, however. In the fourth, he walked Javier Baez, then allowed a two-run homer to Albert Almora to put the Cubs up 5-4. Niese left after 3.2 innings and five runs allowed. Some of his struggles today were due to poor fielding behind him, but he didn't help himself with two key leadoff walks and the Almora homer. His ERA rose to 5.13. Any scouts there watching him surely left unimpressed.
The score remained 5-4 for several innings, with Arquimedes Caminero, Jeff Locke (making an appearance out of the bullpen with the break coming up) and Neftali Feliz holding down the fort. The Bucs tied the game in the seventh. Josh Bell entered as a pinch-hitter for Feliz and maintained his 1.000 batting average with a walk. He moved up on a single by Jaso and a force out by Starling Marte, then came home on McCutchen's sacrifice fly.
The tie, alas, wouldn't last. Tony Watson gave up a one-out double to Matt Szczur in the eighth, then an RBI single to Bryant. C.J. Edwards and Hector Rondon finished the Pirates off in the late innings.
The Bucs therefore miss the opportunity to finish the first half with a sweep of their most talented divisional rival. They head into the break 46-43, and they have some problems to address, Niese certainly among them. It's been an exciting couple weeks, though, and hopefully the Pirates can continue playing exciting baseball once they return despite not finishing the job today.