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Nova fans 8 in return as Bucs cruise past Cubs

MLB.com @adamdberry

CHICAGO -- Ivan Nova pitched through knee pain most of last season, and he was not particularly interested in going on the disabled list two weeks ago. But after a brutal month on the mound, Nova finally admitted his sprained right ring finger was a problem he should no longer attempt to pitch through.

Nova's return to the rotation on Sunday afternoon proved not only his health, but also his effectiveness when healthy. The veteran right-hander allowed only four hits, struck out eight and recorded eight outs on the ground over 5 2/3 innings as the Pirates beat the Cubs, 7-1, at Wrigley Field.

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CHICAGO -- Ivan Nova pitched through knee pain most of last season, and he was not particularly interested in going on the disabled list two weeks ago. But after a brutal month on the mound, Nova finally admitted his sprained right ring finger was a problem he should no longer attempt to pitch through.

Nova's return to the rotation on Sunday afternoon proved not only his health, but also his effectiveness when healthy. The veteran right-hander allowed only four hits, struck out eight and recorded eight outs on the ground over 5 2/3 innings as the Pirates beat the Cubs, 7-1, at Wrigley Field.

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"He was hitting the corners all day, keeping the ball down," Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "It's tough to do anything when he's on like that."

Video: PIT@CHC: Nova K's Bryant to escape a jam in the 3rd

The Pirates activated Nova without having him make a Minor League start or any other organized outing since his last appearance on May 24, when his ERA climbed to 4.96. Still, the Bucs decided Nova was prepared after watching him work in bullpen sessions with pitching coach Ray Searage and a two-inning simulated game at PNC Park.

"He was ready to pitch," manager Clint Hurdle said. "At the end of the day, he showed you he was ready to pitch."

Nova's injured finger mostly impaired his offspeed stuff, but it affected every pitch he threw. Fully healed, he regained command of his fastball, bite on his curveball and movement on his changeup.

Nova pitched around Josh Harrison's two-out error in the third inning and did the same when Jordy Mercer bobbled a grounder in the fifth, inducing a ground-ball double play from pinch-hitter Tommy La Stella, then striking out Javier Baez to end the inning.

Video: PIT@CHC: Harrison, Mercer turn the double play in 5th

"Just the way that the ball was coming out of my hand, I could tell the difference right away," Nova said. "To be able to pitch a game like today … I think that's kind of a lesson for you. Don't force it."

After days of trying to force some kind of offensive outburst, the Pirates finally broke through. Harrison jump-started a Pittsburgh lineup that managed only one hit on Saturday and one run over the previous two days, pulling his second leadoff home run of the season to left field off Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks. The Pirates did most of their damage against the Cubs' bullpen in the sixth, however.

With one out and runners on the corners, Elias Diaz ended the Pirates' 0-for-19 skid with runners in scoring position by slapping a single to right off lefty reliever Brian Duensing. Josh Bell drew a walk, one of his three on the day, to load the bases for Gregory Polanco. The struggling right fielder broke the game open with a bases-clearing triple to right field to highlight the five-run frame.

Video: PIT@CHC: Polanco plates 3 with a triple in the 6th

"He put a good swing on that ball," Hurdle said. "Those kinds of things can [be a] catalyst into something or another, but we'll see. Just take it one day at a time. Big swing for us today."

As the Pirates left Chicago on Sunday night bound for Arizona, they could look back at a well-rounded victory after a trio of incomplete performances. They hit plenty but didn't pitch well enough to beat the Dodgers on Thursday. It was the opposite story on Friday and Saturday at Wrigley Field -- good enough pitching, not enough hitting. They finally put it all together on Sunday.

"It's good to win a game. We're more surprised when we don't win than when we do win. That's not going to change," Hurdle said. "These men go out there and they expect to win. They have to play well to win. We played well today."

Video: PIT@CHC: Polanco's triple highlights a 5-run 6th

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Timing is everything: Before Sunday, the Pirates' last hit with a man in scoring position came on Thursday. In the eighth inning of their 8-7 loss to the Dodgers, Diaz launched a three-run homer to left field. Between then and the sixth inning on Sunday, the Pirates had no hits in 19 at-bats with RISP; they went 0-for-13 in those situations in Friday's series-opening, 3-1 loss. But Diaz delivered against Duensing.

After falling behind in the count, 3-0, the lefty fired a sinker down and away from Diaz. He was looking for a fastball, but ideally something over the plate a little more.

"Next time," Diaz said, smiling, "I've got to look for a better pitch."

It worked out, anyway. Starting in place of the injured Francisco Cervelli, Diaz smacked the pitch to shallow right field to bring home Austin Meadows, who had reached on a leadoff double, and give the Bucs a 2-0 lead.

"He still stayed with the pitch. It was smart hitting," Hurdle said. "He didn't try to get too big or try to create something that wasn't there."

Video: PIT@CHC: Diaz plates Meadows with a single to right

SOUND SMART
Harrison's home run was the seventh leadoff shot of his career. His only other one this season was also against Hendricks, on May 30 at PNC Park. His last four leadoff home runs have been against the Cubs. He has the fifth-most leadoff homers in club history, trailing Barry Bonds (20), Al Martin (10), Andrew McCutchen (eight) and Bob Bailey (eight).

Video: PIT@CHC: Harrison rips a leadoff homer to left-center

The Pirates had not scored five runs in an inning since scoring six times in the sixth inning against the Reds on April 6.

HE SAID IT
"Just using their energy in my favor. If you hear all the stuff the guys say to you in the bullpen, that motivates you a little more. Let's show them I can pitch with 40,000 fans not in my favor. That's the way they are. I like the ballpark. I just try to use that energy in my favor." -- Nova, on winning two games at Wrigley Field this season

UP NEXT
Right-hander Joe Musgrove will start for the Pirates as they begin a three-game series against the D-backs on Monday night at Chase Field. Musgrove is coming off his first loss as a Pirate, but he still owns a 1.89 ERA after three starts. Lefty Patrick Corbin will start for Arizona at 9:40 p.m. ET.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Josh Harrison, Ivan Nova, Gregory Polanco