PITTSBURGH -- Looking to make some noise during a critical stretch against clubs they're chasing in the postseason race, the Pirates instead found their bats silent in a 1-0 loss to the Cubs on Thursday night at PNC Park.
The Pirates managed only six hits, all singles, and didn't draw a walk while striking out 10 times against Jonathan Lester and the Cubs bullpen. Despite a strong effort from Ivan Nova and quality work from relievers Richard Rodriguez and Felipe Vazquez, the Bucs fell back to .500 for the first time since July 20. They are now 10 games behind the division-leading Cubs and 6 1/2 games out of the second National League Wild Card spot.
"Every time you lose a game, it's tough. But having a game like this, in the situation that we are, we need to win," Nova said. "We need to get W's, especially against the teams ahead of us. It's a tough one."
Nova gave the Bucs the start they needed, even if it seemed to be split into two different acts. Early on, he fired fastballs up in the zone and recorded eight of his first 10 outs in the air. That was part of the veteran's plan of attack against a Cubs lineup that has had success against him when he's pounded the bottom of the zone with sinkers.
Ian Happ finally made him pay for a pitch over the plate, blasting a center-cut changeup into the center-field seats for a solo home run in the fourth. After that, Nova forced the Cubs to put the ball on the ground and recorded only one more out in the air as he worked 6 2/3 innings on 97 pitches.
The veteran starter allowed seven hits and struck out three while putting together his 11th walk-free start of the season, but the complete lack of run support led to his seventh loss.
"I thought he pitched a really good game," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Outs are outs, and when you're elevating the ball, you're going to get balls in the air. That was part of his plan tonight. ... He used his complete arsenal."
Lester snapped out of a brutal second-half slump and shut down the Pirates. The veteran lefty entered Thursday with a 10.32 ERA in five starts since the All-Star break, a 22 2/3-inning stretch during which he allowed nine home runs while opponents hit .383 against him.
But Lester carved up Pittsburgh's lineup over six innings on Thursday, tying his season high with eight strikeouts. The Pirates only put one runner in scoring position all night. According to Statcast™, they hit five balls harder than 95 mph and didn't produce a single "barreled" ball.
"It's nice to pitch well against these guys," Lester said. "These guys have kind of been a thorn in my side the past two years. So, it's nice."
Over their last four games, the Pirates have scored only nine runs. But even as their postseason odds grow longer, this is not the time of the year for dramatic change. There have been individual slumps, particularly from the top-of-the-order outfield trio that sparked their recent success, but this is still the same group of hitters that collectively caught fire last month.
"These guys have got us to this point in time in the fight," Hurdle said. "It all depends on what you're looking for, what you want to hunt right now. I want to hunt with the guys that have been in there and that have fought."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
One shot: The Pirates only threatened to score once, in the fifth inning, when Josh Harrison and Adeiny Hechavarria each singled to put runners on the corners with two outs. That brought up Nova, the .022-hitting pitcher.
The Pirates thought about pinch-hitting for Nova, Hurdle said, and there's a "good chance" they would have if there had been only one out in the inning. But with two outs, Nova went to the plate and got ahead in the count, 3-0, before taking a questionably low called strike. Nova took the next pitch, fouled off two more then went down swinging at a high fastball.
"That's a hard one," Hurdle said. "It's not so much sometimes the way your guy's pitching. It's the way the other guy's pitching. I still felt confident if we flipped the lineup over, we were going to score one run."
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Hurdle said shortstop prospect Kevin Newman would find opportunities to play, and the first came on the day he was called up to the Majors. After Adam Frazier pinch-hit for Hechavarria in the eighth inning, Newman -- with his wife and family in attendance -- made his Major League debut in the ninth as a defensive replacement at shortstop.
"It was unbelievable. I can't say enough," Newman said. "It's just a dream come true to go out there and be playing shortstop for a Major League team, let alone the Pittsburgh Pirates. It's incredible."
HE SAID IT
"He got outs. I felt we were going to push, and it never happened. He continued to make pitches. We got his pitch count up a little bit, but he pitched six strong innings. He competes. I thought we had some pitches to do something with. We weren't able to, then he'd come back and make better pitches." -- Hurdle, on Lester
Right-hander Trevor Williams will start against left-hander Cole Hamels, a fellow graduate of Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego, as the Pirates and Cubs continue their four-game series at PNC Park at 7:05 p.m. ET on Friday. Williams has allowed two runs in 29 innings over his last five starts.