CHICAGO — The Pirates took game one of their three game series against the Chicago Cubs today, holding on to win 3-2. The win cut their magic number for home field in the Wild Card game down to five. Each win this series knocks two off that total, and one more win the rest of the weekend could all but wrap things up.
As I wrote last night, all of this has a feeling as if it might be meaningless, since the Pirates will have to take on the hottest pitcher in baseball — Jake Arrieta — in the Wild Card game. It’s not impossible to beat Arrieta, but it’s going to be extremely difficult. In a way, the Pirates showed off the blueprint to winning the Wild Card game in this afternoon’s victory, with a five step plan on how to beat a Cubs ace.
1. Counter an ace with an ace.
The Cubs didn’t have Arrieta on the mound today. But they did have another ace in Jon Lester to give the Pirates a challenge. The Pirates countered with their own ace, Gerrit Cole, who gave up just one run in seven innings, striking out eight in the process. And that’s exactly who the Pirates will be countering with in the Wild Card game.
Cole was fantastic today, and almost escaped the fourth inning without giving up his lone run. He had runners at first and third with no outs, then came up big with a strikeout against Chris Coghlan. He almost got out of the jam with a ground ball by Addison Russell to Jordy Mercer at short. Mercer made a quick throw to second, and Josh Harrison made a quick relay to first, but Russell was too fast, beat it out, and the run scored from third. Cole went on to retire 10 of his next 11 batters to finish off the outing.
After the game, Cole noted that he’s been using a better delivery lately, which led to a lot of the success today.
“I brought out a really consistent delivery the last two times, and I’ve been able to get aggressive in spots with the fastball, knowing that I can locate it,” Cole said.
For most of the season, Cole has looked like an ace. He’s hit a few rough patches lately, so hopefully the delivery change can improve his chances of getting back to pitching like a number one. As the Pirates saw last year with Madison Bumgarner, a number one starter can shut you down, and can carry a team to a World Series title.
Oh, and speaking of that…
Watching Gerritt Cole last week two very good scouts–both ex-pitchers–predicted Cole could be the Madison Bumgarner of the '15 playoffs
— Peter Gammons (@pgammo) September 25, 2015
Wouldn’t that be great?
2. Grind out some offense.
The Pirates didn’t exactly have a great day against Lester. They just had some timely hitting to carve out a lead. Lester retired the first seven batters in a row, but the success was broken up by a ground rule double from Jordy Mercer. Gerrit Cole followed that up with a single up the middle, bringing in Mercer to put the Pirates up 1-0.
Lester then went on to retire 11 of the next 12 batters, with the only hit allowed being a leadoff single in the fifth inning from Michael Morse. Meanwhile, the Cubs scored their run in the fourth inning, and the two teams went tied into the 7th inning. That’s when the Pirates got to Lester again.
Aramis Ramirez led things off this time with a double that was ripped over the head of Kris Bryant at third. He was removed for Keon Broxton, who was sacrificed to third and scored on a Michael Morse single to give the Pirates a 2-1 lead.
The Pirates only had five hits off Lester, but they made them count with some timely hitting, and gave Gerrit Cole just enough support.
3. Get to the Cubs bullpen.
The Cubs don’t have a bad bullpen at all. They aren’t the best group in the majors, but they’re in the top third in baseball in most categories, and in the top five overall in a lot of key metrics. But given the choice of facing Arrieta (or Lester) versus one of the middle relievers, I think anyone would take the relievers.
The last time Lester pitched against the Pirates, he threw a complete game. This time around he left after seven innings, and Pedro Strop gave up the deciding run in the eighth. Jordy Mercer reached to lead off the frame after a wild pitch on a swinging third strike. Mercer moved to third when Pedro Alvarez followed with a pinch hit single. He was able to score on a high chopper by Starling Marte, giving the Pirates all they needed to win.
A big credit for bouncing Lester early would have to go to Gregory Polanco. He went 0-for-3 against the left-hander, but saw a lot of pitches, with 21 pitches total between his three at-bats. To put that in perspective, Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen combined for 19 pitches total against Lester over six combined at-bats. Without that approach by Polanco, Lester might have been able to go in the eighth inning, and this game might have been a different story.
4. Get the game to Watson and Melancon.
Earlier today, Ed Giles wrote about how Mark Melancon and Tony Watson have been two of the best shutdown pitchers in baseball over the last three years. That has definitely continued this year, as they rank first and second in shutdowns. Melancon did give up a run today, after two extra base hits to Chris Denorfia and Starlin Castro. He was able to hold on after that with a big save, after two huge strikeouts to end it with the tying run on third.
“Some serious big time pitches the next two guys,” Cole said of the way Melancon rebounded.
“I didn’t locate well with Denorfia and Castro, but the rest of the guys I located well and did exactly what I wanted to,” Melancon said. “Cervelli had a really good plan back there, and I was right on the same page with him. Fortunately, just located really well.”
Melancon credits the continued success to his catchers, plus getting ahead in the count and his location. Once that was working today, he was able to shut things down. Watson also had a huge moment in the eighth, when he put two runners on with two outs and Anthony Rizzo at the plate. He struck out Rizzo to escape the jam and get the game to Melancon.
Even when they don’t have their best stuff, Watson and Melancon can shut down some of the best teams in the majors.
“It’s a high level of confidence,” Cole said on turning the game over to those two relievers. “It’s a team game. [They’re] the two best guys in the back of the bullpen right there. I was hoping to try and get through one more, but it’s nice to have those guys down there that they can lock the game down.”
5. Raise It.
The final step is pretty straight forward, and arguably the best step in the process.
**Gregory Polanco and Aramis Ramirez both returned to the lineup today after leaving in Colorado with minor injuries. Prior to the game, Polanco looked like he was hobbling when warming up. Ramirez looked a little slow on a double down the left field line in the seventh inning, which ended up setting up the eventual winning run. Both players admitted to being a bit sore after the game, but said they were good enough to play.
“I think I did alright. They need me, they need that run,” Ramirez said. “It’s going to be sore for a little bit here, but I can manage. I’m good enough to go out there, and I’ll be back out there tomorrow.”
Polanco echoed the same thing: “We just have to fight everyday.”
**Gerrit Cole passed 200 innings pitched today, and recorded his 200th strikeout of the year. He credited hard work in the off-season, and hard work during the season to reaching those marks, especially the innings.
“It was a big goal,” Cole said of the 200 inning mark. “It’s a testament to the training staff. Testament to the strength coach. Ray’s done a fantastic job keeping me where I’m at. The catchers have done a great job all year, putting me in the best position I can be to eat innings.”