The Pittsburgh Pirates have been finding ways to come from behind and win games but another short start, this time from Jonathon Niese forced a frequently used bullpen into action early leading to a 6-5 defeat to the Chicago Cubs.
Niese lasted a season-low 3.2 innings a day after Chad Kuhl pitched and threw 76 pitches. He allowed five earned runs on eight hits with four of them coming in a two-run first inning.
“I think it’s just the consistency of the angle,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “When he’s been good, there’s downhill angle created and he’s had good command of the zone. There were just too many pitches elevated today.”
Niese saw his ERA elevate from 4.87 to 5.13 after the performance and shot down Hurdle’s theory about arm angle.
“I’m really done worrying about my mechanics,” he said. “I’m out there worrying about mechanics, and I’m not executing pitches. For me the arm angle is what it is. If I’m executing pitches, that’s all that matters, and I’m not.”
Niese expressed disappointment when recounting his first half to the season. He was able to stay healthy, but could not find a consistent rhythm.
“When I toe the rubber, I am competing to the best of my abilities,” said Niese. “This first half, I’m going to be honest, it just wasn’t good. The second half will be different. I’m going to come out and the results will change.”
Niese’s first inning placed the Pirates in a hole which they overcame in the second inning.
Sean Rodriguez led off the inning with his 10th home run of the season off John Lackey. Rodriguez has homered in three consecutive games.
Adam Frazier then singled and advanced to second on an error. He scored when Eric Fryer doubled. Two batters later, John Jaso singled scoring Fryer and placing the Pirates in the lead.
Niese allowed a single run during the third inning in a Willson Contreras RBI ground out.
An inning later, Javier Baez led off with a walk and scored when Albert Almora Jr. hit his second home run of the season. After allowing singles to Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, Hurdle pulled his starter.
Arquimedes Caminero came in and got Contreras out on one pitch, ending the inning.
Jeff Locke was tasked with throwing the fifth inning. It was his first relief appearance since Aug. 14, 2012, a span of 104 consecutive starts.
“It’s been a while,” he said. “I told Ray a couple of days ago that I knew I wasn’t going to start another game before the break, so if something happened, I would be available. To be honest, it gives you a good appreciation for what they do every day.”
The Pirates came back to tie the game in the seventh inning on a sacrifice fly from Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen also homered in the third inning, hitting his 14th of the season.
Earlier in the inning, pinch-hitter Josh Bell worked a walk and advanced to second base on a Jaso single.
Starling Marte then grounded into a fielder’s choice. Bell got involved in a rundown but did so long enough that the Cubs got the Jaso out at second base. Bell tried to race to third after Marte was called safe at first and made it to the base just beating the throw. Bell ran on McCutchen’s fly out knowing Jason Heyward’s arm was strong and accurate and just beat the throw.
Tony Watson (1-3) pitched the eighth inning and allowed a one out double to Matt Szczur. He scored on a Bryant two out single which proved to be the game-winning run.
Pirates at the break
The Pirates now stand at 46-43 and 7.5 games behind the Cubs for National League Central lead.
“We played good baseball for two months, had a hard June and finished strong,” Hurdle said. “I love the belief in that clubhouse. I love the energy that we bring every day. We never count ourselves out.”
For Locke, the break is a bittersweet time because while the team is playing good baseball, there also are several players battling through injuries.
“We want to keep playing baseball,” said Locke. “Guys are playing together and pulling the rope in the same direction and that’s going to lead to a lot more wins than losses. Myself included, the starters have to start putting some good efforts in off the mound and try to give that bullpen a little bit of a break.
“You’ve got to assume we’re getting Gerrit back, Vogelsong is getting to where he need to be, Cervelli gets four more days and it’s four more days for everyone to get to where they need to be at. It’s good for us to get a break and unplug for a little while. At the same time, we’re playing good baseball and want to keep it going. We do need the break to get with their families and get away from baseball for a little while then come back and pick up where we left off.”
Anthony Rizzo tied a career-high with four hits in this game a day after falling a home run shy of a cycle … The Pirates will next travel to face the Washington Nationals on Friday.
Photo credit: @Pirates