Through 105 games, the Chicago Cubs’ starting rotation has not been what many believed it would be prior to this season. A group consisting of Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Yu Darvish, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood seemed likely to become one of the best rotations to ever grace a Wrigley Field mound. Now, as the calendar reads the end of July, that hope has waned.
Entering play on Tuesday, the Cubs’ starting rotation owned the ninth best ERA in the National League at 4.14. Despite a rather solid mark, that same rotation was sporting the second highest FIP in the NL at 4.74, trailing only the lowly Cincinnati Reds.
Even while some of the numbers suggest the Cubs’ rotation has struggled, there has been at least one bright spot among the rotation. That bright spot has come in the form of Jon Lester who has bounced back nicely after suffering a down 2017 campaign. Prior to Tuesday night, Lester was sporting the seventh best ERA among starters in the National League with a 3.06 mark.
Despite Lester’s solid ERA, the Cubs were unable to cash-in on some late opportunities, falling to the Pittsburgh Pirates 5-4 on Tuesday.
That number, while not supported by his 4.59 FIP, has helped right an otherwise disappointing starting rotation.
On Tuesday, however, Lester did not bring his best stuff, just six days after the southpaw scattered four hits over six innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks. In that outing, Lester failed to walk a batter while striking out seven in 103 pitches.
Just four pitches into his outing an Tuesday, Lester had notched his first walk of the game to the Pirates’ lead-off man. After that walk, Lester seemed to settle down getting a fly out, a fielder’s choice and another ground out to end the Pirates’ opening frame.
A quick out to begin the second inning was greeted by Lester’s second walk of the game and a double off the bat of Jose Osuna, putting runners on second and third with one out. Lester, like he has done many times this season, stranded those runners on base after getting a ground out and a strikeout of the opposing pitcher.
In the following frame, however, Lester was not able to limit the damage. The big left-hander started the frame by getting two rather quick outs before a Gregory Polanco single and David Freese double gave the Pirates a 1-0 lead in the third inning. The following batter, Francisco Cervelli, then roped his tenth home run of the season into the left field corner, putting the Pirates ahead by three runs.
A strikeout ended the inning for Lester as the top of the Cubs’ order greeted Jameson Taillon in the fourth. The top of that order, starting with number two hitter Ben Zobrist immediately got something going. Zobrist, who entered play slashing .304/.391/.438, smacked a double into right-center field, giving the veteran 15 on the season.
That double was followed by a Jason Heyward single, putting runners on the corners for the Cubs’ best RBI guy, Javier Baez. Prior to Tuesday night’s game, Baez had been posting MVP-caliber numbers this season, slashing .295/.326/.561 with 21 home runs and 79 RBI. That lofty RBI total was already a career-high for Baez who notched 75 in 145 games last season.
In the fourth inning, with the Cubs trailing 3-0, Baez delivered once again, pulling a three-run home run into the left field seats, tying the game. Baez’s 22nd home run of the season puts him just one behind the 23 he hit last season, as the youngster has already amassed a WAR of 4.1 this season.
Tied at three, the Pirates responded in the home half of the fifth with a two-out rally to take the lead. A Polanco walk, Lester’s third of the game, put the go-ahead run on first base. It did not take Freese long to then double into right-center, a ball Albert Almora almost chased down, putting the Pirates in the lead once again, 4-3.
Already up by one, it appeared the Pirates were poised for more. Cervelli deposited a single into left field in front of Ian Happ who promptly picked it up and fired a strike to home plate, nabbing Freese before he could score the Pirates’ fifth run of the game.
After that fifth inning in which Pittsburgh grabbed the lead back, Lester was pulled. Despite not having his best stuff, Lester muddled through five innings, keeping his team in contention. The southpaw’s final line looked like this: five innings, seven hits, four earned runs, three walks and three strikeouts on 101 pitches.
In each of the two innings that followed, the Cubs had opportunities to tie the game. Baez stayed hot at the plate in the sixth, leading the inning off with a double into left field. That double was backed up by a ground out from Almora, a line-out to second base from Happ and a line-out to the pitcher by Willson Contreras.
An inning later, in the seventh, Anthony Rizzo was hit by a pitch ahead of Zobrist who drew a bases on balls. With two runners on and two away, Heyward struck out looking, once again ending the Cubs’ threat in the later innings.
Following Rizzo’s hit by pitch, Taillon was pulled after a rather solid outing on Tuesday. Take away Baez’s home run in the fourth and Taillon very well could have pitched a shutout into the seventh. The right-hander’s final line looked like this: 6.2 innings, seven hits, three earned runs, two walks and two strikeouts on 89 pitches.
Even though Taillon pitched a solid game, the Cubs were confronted with ample chances to tie and take the lead. Despite not cashing in on opportunities in the aforementioned sixth and seventh innings, the Cubs quickly responded in the top half of the ninth. After a solo home run off the bat of Polanco made it 5-3 Pirates in the eighth, the Cubs drew within a run in the final inning.
A single and what appeared to be an RBI triple off the bat of Addison Russell tightened the game at 5-4. After review of Russell’s slide and Freese’s tag at third base, however, it was determined that Russell came off the bag, clearing the bases and erasing any chance of the Cubs completing the come-back.
With the loss, the Cubs drop to 61-45 while the Pirates improve to 56-52 on the season.
Next Up For The Cubs
The Cubs will wrap-up their short two-game set with the Pirates on Wednesday, August 1 at 6:05 p.m. at PNC Park. Taking the ball for the Cubs will be Cole Hamels (5-9, 4.72). Hamels will be making his first start for the Cubs after being acquired in a trade with the Texas Rangers on July 26. The 34-year-old southpaw will be looking to rebound after posting a horrific month of July. In four starts spanning 17 innings, Hamels logged a 11.12 ERA while at the same time striking out 17 batters and walking five.
Opposing Hamels on the mound will be Nick Kingham (5-5, 4.80 ERA). Kingham, like Hamels, has also struggled in July. The 26-year-old right-hander owned a 6.20 ERA in five starts spanning 24.2 innings. To go along with that, Kingham struck out 20 batters and walked 11 over that same amount of innings.
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