CHICAGO -- The Pirates' unexpectedly hot start provided them with margin for error. They could, and did, withstand a handful of short skids during the first six weeks of the season. But this sustained stretch of losing, which continued with Friday afternoon's 3-1 defeat at Wrigley Field, has pulled that
CHICAGO -- The Pirates' unexpectedly hot start provided them with margin for error. They could, and did, withstand a handful of short skids during the first six weeks of the season. But this sustained stretch of losing, which continued with Friday afternoon's 3-1 defeat at Wrigley Field, has pulled that cushion out from under them.
Only three weeks ago, the Pirates woke up nine games over .500 and sitting in first place in the National League Central. But Pittsburgh lost on Friday for the 15th time in 20 games to fall below .500 for the first time this season. There has been no theme or one group solely responsible for the Pirates' fall over the past three weeks, but rather a lack of what manager Clint Hurdle calls "community." In other words, they're clicking in some facets of the game, but rarely all of them at the same time.
"We know if we put together a complete game -- pitching, hitting, defense, baserunning -- we put ourselves in a position to win games. The past couple weeks, it just hasn't been complete together," second baseman Josh Harrison said. "We'll pitch and not hit. We'll hit and not pitch. Or we make a baserunning mistake. It's baseball. You've got to do everything."
Pittsburgh's rotation was vexing in May, posting a 4.64 ERA, but Chad Kuhl was not the problem on Friday as he allowed three runs in 5 1/3 innings. The Bucs' bullpen has cost them several games recently, but relievers Edgar Santana and Dovydas Neverauskas faced the minimum eight batters over 2 2/3 innings to keep the Pirates in the game.
This time, the Pirates -- after scoring 18 runs and allowing 17 the past two days -- pitched well enough to win, but they did not hit enough. Pittsburgh recorded nine hits, as many as the Cubs, but it finished the day 0-for-13 with runners in scoring position.
"You've got to pitch it. You've got to catch it. You've got to hit it. You've got to run the bases well," Hurdle said. "Any time you don't do one of those, it can show up; it can bite you, especially when you're playing against talented teams. The one thing I know: Our attitude's where it needs to be. Our effort's where it needs to be. Our execution can improve a little bit, and that's what we're working on."
The Pirates put at least one runner on base in every inning except the sixth, but they could not capitalize on their opportunities as they left nine men on base. Their only run came in the first inning, when Harrison hit a leadoff single, advanced to third on Austin Meadows' base hit and scored on a sacrifice fly by Starling Marte.
Corey Dickerson and David Freese reached safely to lead off the second, but they were left stranded. Jordy Mercer hit a leadoff double in the seventh, but he did not score. Colin Moran began the ninth with a single off Pedro Strop, but Cubs left fielder Ian Happ -- a Pittsburgh native -- robbed Harrison of a two-out hit and thwarted the Pirates' final scoring opportunity.
Afterward, Hurdle said there was no time for frustration in the Pirates' clubhouse. They simply had to move forward and focus on winning Saturday's game.
"We're together as a group in here. It's not a try-hard league. It's a do-good league," Hurdle said. "When you don't do well enough, you don't win. We didn't win today. We fought. … You hunt good. At the end of the day, we lost another game. We've got to find a way to show up tomorrow and get after [Jon] Lester and get this thing headed back in a better direction."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Walks will haunt: The first inning did not bother Kuhl in any significant way. He left some balls over the plate, and the Cubs put up two runs on his first eight pitches by recording three consecutive hits and a sacrifice fly. The second inning was more frustrating, however.
The Cubs' rally began with a one-out walk to opposing starter Mike Montgomery. After Kristopher Bryant reached on an infield single and Jason Heyward slapped a single to left, Montgomery scored on Benjamin Zobrist's fielder's-choice grounder despite Harrison's best effort to turn the potential inning-ending double play.
"That second inning was tough. You can handle getting hit around in the first. Ball's over the plate, that's what they're supposed to do," Kuhl said. "It kind of turns into an ugly inning. It all starts with that walk."
Kuhl settled down after that, as his fastball command sharpened and his offspeed pitches helped him strike out six batters. He threw a career-high 111 pitches, but he worked into the sixth inning, when Santana defused a jam by striking out lefty hitters Happ and Thomas La Stella.
Meadows went 2-for-4 and now has eight multi-hit games in 16 starts this season. The lefty-swinging Meadows is batting .421 with a 1.447 OPS against left-handed pitching.
HE SAID IT
"When you get frustrated, sometimes you've got to take a step back to say, 'Hey, let the game come to you instead of trying to do too much.' I won't say that's the case with what's happening right now, but naturally, sometimes guys can press. As a whole, when you feel it as a team, it gets magnified."-- Harrison, on how the Pirates will move forward
"He probably should have got the save along with Strop today, playing left field."-- Hurdle, on Happ's highlight-reel catches
Right-hander Nick Kingham will start for the Pirates as they continue a three-game series against the Cubs at Wrigley Field on Saturday at 2:20 p.m. ET. Kingham allowed three runs in 5 2/3 innings against the Cubs on May 29 at PNC Park. Veteran Jonathan Lester will start for the Cubs.
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.