Familiar foe strikes Pirates again despite Cruz's best efforts

May 12th, 2024

PITTSBURGH -- A year ago, the Pirates and Cubs were both 73-76 in games they did not play against one another. The difference in their two seasons, in which the Pirates finished 10 games under .500 and the Cubs nearly made the postseason, was head-to-head play, where the Cubs won 10 of 13 games.

The Pirates had a chance to make an early-season statement against Chicago on Sunday at PNC Park, but they were unable to come through in prime run-scoring opportunities late, resulting in a 5-4 Cubs win in 10 innings.

“Those are games we have to capitalize on and we didn't do that today,” said manager Derek Shelton.

The game had the ingredients of a series rubber match win. Bailey Falter bounced back from a two-run Christopher Morel homer in the first to deliver a quality start. Oneil Cruz homered and made a run-saving snare in the seventh that had a 5% catch probability.

And the Pirates had a pair of chances with the top of the order up in the seventh and ninth to win it, but couldn’t come through either time. In the ninth, Bryan Reynolds and Cruz had a chance with the bases loaded, but Reynolds but Reynolds hit a tapper back to the pitcher that resulted in a forceout at the plate, and Cruz got just under a fastball and flew out.

“Yeah, that’s one we wanted right there,” said Connor Joe, who homered in the 10th. “I feel like we had chances to win that game. Unfortunately, we came out on the wrong side. Thinking back to last year, the games we played against them, I don’t feel like it was too far out of reach, any of those games. We play them tough. I think we’re close as a team. We’re really close.”

The Pirates are now set to embark on a pivotal week-long road trip to Milwaukee and Chicago, the top two teams in the National League Central. It could be a chance to make up some ground.

The Pirates are opting to go with a six-man rotation, at least for the very short term, to build in extra rest for the rotation. Given the team has an abundance of off-days coming up, pushing back Jared Jones and Paul Skenes even one day this week means that they can theoretically have them pitch with the extra day of rest every outing for the next month. There’s obvious appeal in that.

However, that also means that the Pirates are operating with a six-man bullpen for the time being. It nearly cost them the game Saturday because Shelton felt he had to stick with a wild Kyle Nicolas amid him walking runners home consecutively.

On Sunday, it meant that Aroldis Chapman, who has been inconsistent this season, had the 10th, where he allowed two runs and put two runners on before exiting due to a cracked nail. With limited options remaining, Shelton had to go to Nicolas, who walked the batter he inherited before the deciding fifth run came home on a passed ball.

Cruz's power surge
If there has been a bright spot for this Pirates’ offense of late, it has been Joe and Cruz. Cruz got off to a slow start the season, but has caught fire of late, slashing .361/.400/.639 with four home runs over his last 18 games, dating back to April 22.

That includes a 2-for-5 performance Sunday, when Cruz skied a 47-degree launch angle home run for his seventh home run of the season.

“I think he's not chasing as much,” Shelton said. “He's staying in his zones and when we see him stay in his zones, he hits the ball really hard. I think we've seen that over the last two or three weeks.”

Some of that hot streak is also due to some mechanical changes, in which Cruz tweaked his hand placement and his front foot is more closed off in his swing. But for Joe, he also sees a more confident player stepping into the batter’s box of late.

“I just think his hard work is paying off,” Joe said. “You could see as he got a couple hits early on in April, the confidence coming back. He’s hitting the ball hard everywhere. I think that builds confidence. When you’re a confident hitter, you’re dangerous. He’s just taking really professional at-bats. When he steps in there, he’s a danger and he’s a threat. He knows that. The other team knows that. It’s really good to see him hit the ball really hard.”