The three-game series between the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates would end on a misty afternoon at Wrigley Field, humid but around room temperature. The Cubs, who clinched their fifth consecutive series victory on Saturday, sent Kyle Hendricks to the mound. Pittsburgh, who conversely lost their seventh series in a row, summoned struggling veteran Ivan Nova.
Hoping that another unconventional lineup would shake the quiet offense to life, Maddon penciled in free-swinging Javier Baez at the leadoff spot. Heading into Sunday’s finale, Baez was riding a 1-for-17 rut that has unfortunately canceled out much of his MVP-caliber play earlier in the year. This strategy may become more common in Maddon’s repertoire of quirks, where the younger hitters are kept on their toes to fill in different roles each day.
Pirates leadoff hitter Josh Harrison quickly made an impact, working a full count before blasting the sixth pitch over the left field basket. It continues a disturbing trend where Hendricks is unable to keep as many fly balls within the ballpark: heading into Sunday, he has already given up 12 homers in only 72.2 innings in the young season, versus 15 and 17 in his entire 2016 and 2017 campaigns, respectively. So the 1-0 lead in the first inning seems a more sour blemish than a redeemable one-run lead.
After a quiet second, third, and fourth inning from both sides, the Cubs began to threaten in the fifth following a single and an error. The usually trusty Tommy La Stella, whose early appearance quickly ended Hendricks’s outing, killed some of the noise with an untimely double play. With Addison Russell on third, Baez struck out for the second time in three at-bats to end a rare scoring opportunity.
Brian Duensing entered the game in the sixth and immediately surrendered a leadoff double to rookie Austin Meadows, who eventually scored on a one-out single by Elias Diaz. After finding the bases loaded with only one out, Maddon summoned rookie right-hander Luke Farrell from the bullpen to replace the struggling Duensing. Gregory Polanco quickly teed off a three-run triple that broke the game open, and an RBI single by Jordy Mercer would raise the game score to 6-0 before the inning’s end.
There are two sides to the argument for Hendricks’s early hook: it would have been completely acceptable had La Stella managed a base hit, which would have either tied the game or put the Cubs in front. With the rally-killing double play, however, pulling Hendricks instead of bunting him becomes an unwise decision. Plus, Nova’s high groundball tendencies (50.7% GB rate) gave more reason to encourage Hendricks to push runners over. Without hindsight, it’s hard to criticize bullpen moves. But perhaps the fifth inning mishap was questionable at the very least.
The Cubs tallied their first run in the sixth with a sacrifice groundout from Anthony Rizzo, scoring Jason Heyward, who reached on a leadoff double and advanced on a wild pitch. An eighth-inning groundout from David Freese eventually nullified that to keep the deficit at seven. With the score at 7-1, Felipe Vazquez slammed the door shut and sealed a disappointing loss for the Cubs.
There were few bright spots for Chicago, but Hendricks’s outing shone above the rest. A line of 5.0 IP – 1 ER – 3 H is respectable for a Pirates team that seemed to flare offensively, and all baserunners were stranded successfully through timely strikeouts and weak contact. Ignoring the first inning mistake on Harrison’s solo shot, Hendricks appeared in solid form for five short innings. Reducing the home run tendencies to his past state could mean the return of Vintage Kyle.
For now, clutch hitting with runners on remains the biggest issue for the young lineup. The Cubs went 0-5 in such situations, leaving 5 men stranded and grounding into two double plays. Perhaps today is an anomaly considering their recent success, but Sunday’s loss is a sore reminder of the earlier season, where inefficiency plagued a struggling offense.
The exciting news? For the next three games, Chicago will be facing the Milwaukee Brewers in an away series. Jose Quintana (6-4, 4.20 ERA) will look to continue his success against the division rivals, while Junior Guerra (3-4, 2.83 ERA) will attempt redemption from an earlier loss.
Catch the game tomorrow at 7:10 PM, where NBC and MLB Network will be broadcasting on television, while 670 The Score will be commentating for radio listeners from Miller Park.
Feature Photo Credit: Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune