Lester Stifles Pirates in 2-1 Loss to the Cubs

PITTSBURGH – Behind Jon Lester’s complete game, the Chicago Cubs defeated the Pirates 2-1, securing a split of today’s double-header and remaining four games back of the Pirates for the top Wild Card position, the same place in the standings where they stood entering the day.

Lester stifled the Pirates’ offense, scattering five hits, allowing only one earned run and striking out nine batters. He had complete control of his arsenal of pitches, keeping the Pirates’ offense off-balanced and inducing a lot of weak contact.

“He can throw that ball in a teacup down and in to the right-handers, and then he can cut it off of that,” Hurdle said in praise of Lester after tonight’s game. “I probably saw more curveballs and change-ups from him tonight with good command. [He was] changing speeds extremely well. He just kept nailing that ball to the glove-side down and in. It was tough for us to get the barrel to it.”

The Pirates did stage a rally in the bottom of the seventh inning after consecutive singles by Aramis Ramirez and Francisco Cervelli put runners on first and third base with no one out. Michael Morse was able to work the count to his favor at 3-1, then made solid contact, however he grounded out sharply to the Cubs’ shortstop for an easy 6-4-3 double play, abruptly ending the Pirates’ only rally of the game.

“I got a good pitch to hit,” Morse said “He just got it enough down that it got the lower part of my barrel. I was thinking sac-fly, trying to hit it in the air, but he’s a very good pitcher and he knows how to get groundballs.”

That was the story of the night for the offense, as Lester pounded his fastball/cutter combo down and in to the Pirates’ all right-handed lineup, inducing ten groundball outs, five of them to third base alone.

The Pirates have struggled mightily this season against the Cubs’ pitching duo of Lester and Jake Arrieta. In a combined five starts and 37 total innings against the Pirates, the duo has a 0.97 ERA and have struck out 37 batters. The Cubs have won four of those five games. The Pirates face Arrieta tomorrow night in the third game of this four game set, and Lester is currently scheduled to face the Pirates in their next series in Chicago in late September.

If the Pirates are unable to catch the Cardinals in the division, they will face one of these two in the one-game Wild Card playoff, a task that seems daunting considering their lack of success against the Cubs’ two aces. It would be beneficial for the Pirates’ offense to find a way to have some success against these two pitchers and gain some confidence prior to the Wild Card game since it is possible that they would have to face one of these two with their season on the line.

** J.A .Happ pitched well enough to win tonight’s game, throwing 5.2 innings and allowing just two earned runs while striking out eight, but unfortunately was not given much breathing room by the Pirates’ offense and Lester’s dominant performance. Happ made some mistakes over the middle of the plate and pitched himself into a couple of jams, but was able to bear down and minimize the damage, keeping the Pirates in the game.

“I got myself into a couple of tough situations and had to really give it everything to try to get out of there,” Happ said. “We were fortunate to execute some pitches in a couple instances and keep the game real close.”

Happ’s newfound ability to get strike outs when he needs them was on full display tonight, including in the fifth inning. It looked as if the Cubs had Happ on the ropes after they sandwiched two doubles between a failed fielder’s choice, when the Pirates tried to get the Cubs’ David Ross at third base on a Lester sacrifice bunt. They had runners on second and third with no outs, and were looking to break the game open with the heart of their order coming to the plate. However, Happ struck out both Austin Jackson and Kris Bryant, and, after intentionally walking Anthony Rizzo, induced a lazy fly ball to left field off of the bat of Starlin Castro to escape the jam.

In Happ’s last three starts, he has struck out 26 batters in just 18.2 innings pitched.

** In what was a questionable move by Clint Hurdle and the Pirates’ staff, Pedro Florimon started tonight’s game at shortstop over Jordy Mercer and Jung-Ho Kang. Hurdle said afterwards that the decision was pre-planned in order to rest Mercer/Kang.

It appears that no matter what the situation and how deep into the season the Pirates get, they will not abandon their philosophy of resting their core group of players. It’s hard to argue, considering the Pirates are among the league leaders in least amount of man-games lost, but the move tonight was a bit puzzling considering the match-up.

Florimon finished the night 0-2 with a strikeout and is hitting .091 for the season.

** As mentioned above, the Pirates will get another crack at Cubs’ ace Jake Arrieta tomorrow night, hoping to earn at least a series split of this four-game series. Arrieta, who will be seeking his 20th win of the season, has been nearly unhittable in the second-half – he has an 0.93 ERA in his last eleven starts, and the Cubs have won his last eight starts. However, his 2.59 xFIP suggests that he is due for a slight regression, so the Pirates hope that they can force it to begin tomorrow night.

  • That 9th inning was sad. Cutch and A-Ram should’ve sat back and tried to get him up into the teens.

    • Both batters got the best possible pitch they would see in their AB’s – they just missed it. They knew he was not going to try to tickle the strike zone and run up the pitch count, and that he was going to try to get ahead. Neither pitch was anything to write home about – very little movement and well located to hit hard.

      You have to remember that Lester has averaged more than 200 IP for the past 7 years and 2015 will be the 8th. He was not coming out of the game unless the Pirates made him leave, and he was going to challenge.

  • John Lester proved tonight what a $30 mil price tag might buy a team. For 2015 he was handed a $15 mil bonus on Apr 15, and also has a $15 mil salary for 2015. And, he is 10-10, 3.38 ERA. The Cubs still have him for 4 more seasons at a total of $85 mil and they still owe him another $15 mil in Bonus money.

    The Cubs wanted instant credibility and they bought it with this guy and Joe Maddon for $5 mil a year. I am not sure but Lester’s salary and bonus for 2015 may come close to covering the entire cost of the 6 man Pirate Rotation. Did I mention that Oakland thought he was the answer for them last year?

    • I’m sure the Cubs would have loved to been able to grab someone from the Pirates rotation, but given that is not how baseball works, they did okay by signing Lester.

      Wins and Losses are a terrible stat by which to evaluate a pitcher. He has been worth 2.7 WAR so far this year. I’m not sure what the going rate of $/WAR for free agents is, but $20M/3 WAR is likely not out of whack.

      And if you take the exercise of subtracting 3 wins from the Cubs, then they’d be at least 7 games back of the Pirates and at best 4 ahead of the Giants. You could make a reasonable argument that the Pirates would have beaten them last night if they started a replacement level SP instead, given that they only scored two runs of their own (his WPA for yesterday was .62)

      Bottom line, I think any team that had the budget would be happy to have a 3 WAR return on a $20M FA pitcher.

  • You can’t start Florimon coming down the stretch, you just can’t. smh.

    GO BUCS.

    • Why? The last time they started him, they won 8-1 against Matt Harvey and the Mets on the road. If you believe this loss was because they started him, then you’d have to believe he’d equally be responsible for that big win. I personally don’t believe either, as I think Florimon is a small piece of what leads to a win or a loss each night.

      • Tim, in that 7th inning, I know this is against what Clint has done in the past, but with 1st and 2nd, no outs, I would have pinch hit Kang for Morse, Polanco for Rodriguez and Neil for P-Flo!!! Moved ARam to 1st, Kang plays 3rd, Neil plays 2nd and Josh moves to short for the 8th and 9th!! That was our opening to put our better hitters at the plate and go for the win!!! And I am still messed up over how we TRASHED the 9th inning!! OMGOODNESS!!! How the hell u got Lester at 105 pitches and ur 3,4,5 hitters up and they don’t make him make pitches??? I know Lester is a Beast, but make his ass make every pitch!! 2 pitches, 2 outs??? That just was not smart!!!! But I still love these dudes but Damn we had a chance for the sweep!!!

        • The plate approach in the 9th was the same for the entire game. By the 7th I was already wondering when we would stop beating ground balls into the dirt on first and second pitches.

      • A good result doesn’t justify a process. That’s true in baseball as much as anywhere.

        Any given player is small piece of what leads to a win or a loss each night. Any given play is a small piece of what leads to a win or a loss each night. That’s the way baseball works!

        Obviously, the idea is to stack in your favor as many small pieces as possible and hope that it comes out into a win. But you know that, and so I’m not sure why you’re ignoring that for this particular comment.

        If they really needed to rest Mercer two days in a row, they should have rested him on Sunday. Games against the Cubs essentially count twice as much as games against the Brewers, so put your best team out against the Cubs, for Pete’s sake!

    • It’s Lester on the mound. You need baserunners. Lester is more likely than most to field a bunt and throw it into RF. Should’ve tried that with Florimon – in fact that’s what I was expecting when I saw him in lineup.

      Anyway, Florimon had the only AB of the game that went past 5 pitches. At least he had some discipline.

      Both pitchers had the same number of middle-middle-ish pitches. The difference was the Cubs got hits off 4 of the 12 from Happ, taking only one called strike and the Bucs took 4 called strikes and got only 1 hit off the 12 from Lester. Meantime, Bucs hitters had more horrible chases than Cubs hitters did.

      Lester was devastating with the cutter once he was ahead in counts. But does this look like particularly great control?

      http://www.brooksbaseball.net/pfxVB/pfx.php?month=9&day=15&year=2015&game=gid_2015_09_15_chnmlb_pitmlb_2%2F&pitchSel=452657&prevGame=gid_2015_09_15_chnmlb_pitmlb_2%2F&prevDate=915&league=mlb

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