CHICAGO -- On Thursday, it was the bullpen. On Friday, a lack of timely hitting. On Saturday, one critical defensive mistake and a dominant pitching performance by the Cubs sent the Pirates to their third straight loss.
Center fielder Starling Marte slipped and fell as he tried to settle under a fly ball in the first inning, and the Cubs capitalized by scoring two runs against right-hander Nick Kingham. That was all Chicago needed to help left-hander Jonathan Lester beat Pittsburgh, 2-0, on Saturday afternoon at Wrigley Field.
"We don't slip on a ball in the outfield," manager Clint Hurdle said afterward, "we may still be playing."
Instead the Pirates lost for the 16th time in their last 21 games and dropped their seventh consecutive series. This time around the pivotal play was simply bad luck.
Kingham hit Kristopher Bryant, the first batter he faced, before Heyward launched a high fly ball to left-center. Marte called off Austin Meadows but lost his footing on the outfield grass, which was slick after a rainy morning in Chicago.
"Unfortunately, the grass was still wet," Marte said through interpreter Mike Gonzalez. "Running at the speed that I was running, trying to grab the ball, I slipped, and you guys saw the results."
The ball landed just behind Marte, falling in for a double. Kingham did his best to recover by retiring the next two batters, but they were productive outs for the Cubs. Benjamin Zobrist's groundout sent home Bryant, and Heyward scored on a sacrifice fly by Anthony Rizzo.
"He'll be the first one to [say], 'My job's to take care of every hitter after that,' and he pretty much did," Hurdle said. "The growth that we've seen, the development that we've seen, it's all trending up. He's learning, I think, at a very, very quick rate and a very, very solid rate. The game awareness on the mound has been fun to watch."
Kingham was dealt a loss he didn't deserve, as he pitched into the seventh inning. He struck out five, walked two and allowed only four hits over 6 1/3 innings, lowering his ERA to 3.82 in six Major League starts this season. Nine of the 14 runs he has allowed have come in the first inning, but he did not let it affect him the rest of the way on Saturday.
"Everything worked pretty well," Kingham said. "I had command of all four of my pitches, for the most part. I think it was just a good mix of everything."
The same could be said for Lester, who silenced a scuffling Pirates lineup that has managed only one run in 18 innings this weekend. Meadows' triple to right field in the third was Pittsburgh's lone hit during the veteran's seven innings on the mound. After going 0-for-13 with runners in scoring position in the series opener, the Bucs only reached base three times against Lester and relievers Justin Wilson and Steve Cishek.
"Right now the mentality is to remain focused, maintain everyone's focus, keep pushing hard, keep working hard, keep making adjustments," Marte said. "When the game is going well, we celebrate and we enjoy it. When the game's going wrong, that's when we need to do mental and physical adjustments. That's what we're working on right now."
The Pirates have scored 25 runs in seven games this month, but 18 of them came in back-to-back games against the Dodgers. Desperately seeking consistency at the plate, they have now been shut out three times in the last six games. Hitters were able to find some solace in the number of balls they hit hard on Saturday, but it wasn't enough.
"You just deal with the facts. We've got to work to get better," Hurdle said. "Maybe we shuffle the personnel around. You look at lineups. I've been scratching them out for a while now and trying to make some subtle adjustments on where you go with that. I don't usually have to worry about showing up and having nothing to do."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
RISP-y business: The Pirates only had two scoring opportunities, and they capitalized on neither. David Freese and Josh Bell each walked with one out in the second, but Lester rebounded by striking out Gregory Polanco and Sean Rodriguez. Meadows tripled in the third, continuing his torrid start and giving him hits in 14 of his 17 starts this season, but he was stranded when Marte grounded out.
"His overall game's been really top shelf," Hurdle said of Lester. "He threw another good outing today. He's been good for a long time."
The last time the Pirates were held to one hit, they won. Dodgers left-hander Rich Hill allowed only one hit on Aug. 23, 2017, but it was Josh Harrison's walk-off home run in the 10th inning at PNC Park.
HE SAID IT
"It was really cool. They sure know how to yell here." -- Kingham, on making his first career start at Wrigley Field before an announced crowd of 41,045
Right-hander Ivan Nova will return from the disabled list to start Sunday's series finale at Wrigley Field at 2:20 p.m. ET. Nova, who struggled to a 7.61 ERA last month after a solid April, has been out since May 24 with a sprained right ring finger. Kyle Hendricks is set to start for Chicago.