Five innings into Saturday’s contest, the Pirates couldn’t seem to solve Chicago starter Scott Baker. After six, the Pirates still hadn’t solved him.
But Jose Tabata hit a solo home run in the sixth off Baker to tie the game, and Marlon Byrd went deep to right-center field off reliever James Russell in the seventh to put Pittsburgh on top, 2-1. The score held, as Tony Watson pitched a perfect eighth inning while Mark Melancon worked the ninth for save no. 15.
““He was pounding the zone with strikes, so it was hard to be patient,” Byrd said. “He’s coming off surgery and he’s not 100 percent but he was still able to pitch well. He did an amazing job.”
As Byrd noted, Baker made just his second start since he had Tommy John surgery in April of 2012 but was sharp in his six innings of work. Baker limited the Pirates offense to a run on three hits, walked none, and struck out four over 75 pitches.
“The ball was moving,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “He was able to pitch up in the zone, stay in the zone at hands level or higher and we couldn’t square up many balls until Tabata put about as good a swing on a ball as he’s had all year.”
Opposite Baker, rookie Gerrit Cole worked seven innings and allowed a run on five hits and three walks while he struck out seven. Cole walked off the mound in the seventh without a decision, but found one in his hand after Byrd’s home run.
Cole escaped a spot of trouble in the seventh, when Brian Bogusevic worked a lead-off walk and Welington Castillo singled. Darwin Barney bunted to move the two into scoring position, and Dioner Navarro stepped in as a pinch-hitter.
After a battle with Navarro, Cole struck him out with 96 mile-per-hour heat located up and in on Cole’s glove side.
“I just went with what Russ was throwing down. We kept having conversations during the inning about what we wanted to do, how we were going to set up the hitters,” Cole said. “Our focus there was to induce a weak ground ball. If we get the strikeout, so be it, but keep him on the ground because we had the infield in.”
After that, Starlin Castro grounded out to Jordy Mercer at short and the Cubs’ best chance to score multiple runs passed without another glance.
“It was a big opportunity to get those outs,” Cole said. “That’s a huge moment in the ballgame. It’s a big-time shutdown inning.”
It wasn’t all roses for Cole in the first, though, when Castro walked to begin the ballgame and Anthony Rizzo singled. With two on and one out, Nate Schierholtz doubled to right-center field and Castro scored the game’s opening run.
A strong throw from the outfield, though, and a strong relay throw from Neil Walker to home plate nailed Rizzo who tried to score from first on the play. The play was one of many executed behind Cole in another solid defensive night for the Pirates.
“The defense picked me up early and allowed me to keep going. Andrew made a lot of catches deep in the ballpark. Pedro made a great stab to throw out Barney in the second inning,” Cole said. “The relay throw in the first inning kept another run off the board and that turned out to be huge. They were going to be aggressive and we couldn’t have executed that play any better.”
For Byrd, who hit the eventual game-winning home run, his big fly tonight was another contribution in an impressive stretch since he joined the Pirates a few weeks ago. The home run was the second for Byrd since his arrival in Pittsburgh, and the outfielder entered Saturday’s game with a .322/.365/.492 line in 16 games wearing the black and gold.
“It’s a blast. I’ve been close but I’ve never been in position where I’ve been able to play in the postseason,” Byrd said. “To come here, where we’re selling games out, the whole town is excited, you have the whole thing of wiping out 20 consecutive losing seasons – it’s just been amazing.”