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Pirates come to life too late in Chicago

@adamdberry
August 1, 2020

In the ninth inning of Friday’s series opener at Wrigley Field, Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel may have helped the Pirates find what they’ve been looking for at the plate. After being one-hit by the Brewers on Wednesday, the Pirates were held scoreless for seven innings by the Cubs on Friday

In the ninth inning of Friday’s series opener at Wrigley Field, Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel may have helped the Pirates find what they’ve been looking for at the plate.

After being one-hit by the Brewers on Wednesday, the Pirates were held scoreless for seven innings by the Cubs on Friday night. Then three of their most important players delivered big hits they hope to build on: Gregory Polanco snapped his hitless start to the season and scored in the eighth, then Josh Bell and Colin Moran launched back-to-back homers off Kimbrel in the ninth.

It was too little, too late in their 6-3 loss to the Cubs, but the Pirates finally found reason for optimism about their offense.

Box score

“I feel like it doesn’t take much for us to rally around each other,” Bell said. “Not a lot of hits early, but all it takes is one good inning to really set the tone for where we want to go for the rest of the year.”

First, consider where the Pirates have been and the hole from which they must remove themselves. In 226 at-bats this season, they are slashing .177/.240/.301 with seven doubles and seven home runs as a team. For the sake of comparison, starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner slashed .167/.239/.308 with eight doubles and eight home runs in 227 at-bats from 2016-19.

They’ve had trouble getting into a groove, and every slump is magnified with a 60-game schedule, even more so at the start of the season. But needless to say, the Pirates expect more of themselves.

"I think we just have to continue to work and continue to have good at-bats,” manager Derek Shelton said Friday afternoon. “And like we talked about the other night, a little bit of this has to do with the fact that we've faced some pretty good pitching.”

Indeed, the Pirates drew Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty on Opening Day and Adam Wainwright the next game, then the Brewers’ Brandon Woodruff looked like an emerging ace on Wednesday. Yu Darvish delivered a seven-strikeout performance while allowing only two hits and a walk over six innings on Friday night, with Shelton saying it was “probably the best I’ve seen Darvish in a while.”

Still, you can only tip your cap so often. So when Darvish exited the game, the Pirates came to life at last.

Leading off the eighth against lefty reliever Kyle Ryan, Polanco smacked a 100.8 mph double to right-center for his first hit of the season then scored on Jarrod Dyson’s two-out single to right off reliever Rowan Wick. Polanco had been 0-for-9 with six strikeouts since coming off the injured list, but between that double and his hard-hit lineout in the ninth, Shelton saw signs of progress.

Bell greeted Kimbrel in the ninth inning with his first home run of the season, a shot pulled out to right field. Pittsburgh’s All-Star first baseman entered the night hitting just .174 with four singles, seven strikeouts and only one walk in six games. The most encouraging thing about Bell’s home run may not have been the distance (388 feet), the exit velocity (101.8 mph) or the launch angle (29 degrees). It was the fact that Bell broke his bat on Kimbrel’s 97.2 mph fastball, the first time he said that’s happened on a home run.

“But it’s a good sign. Let that ball travel a little bit and still keep it fair,” Bell said. “Hopefully it’s a really good sign that things are coming.”

Good things have been happening for Moran, who swatted his fourth homer -- tied for the Major League lead -- to left-center field after Bell went deep. Moran has been the Pirates’ most consistent performer, batting .333 (8-for-24) with five RBIs.

“Every at-bat we had in the ninth was good and aggressive. Colin’s at-bats have continued to be like that,” Shelton said. “I think we need to trend that way as a group. That was encouraging to see there at the end of the game.”

Even their ninth-inning outs left them feeling hopeful despite their fifth loss in the season’s first seven games. Bryan Reynolds, batting just .083, smashed a 104.7 mph groundout after the back-to-back homers. Polanco crushed a 104.9 mph line drive at center fielder Albert Almora Jr. And Cole Tucker hit a 102.4 mph grounder to second base to end the game.

“All it takes is one good swing and one good at-bat to build off of. You have guys like Reynolds and [Kevin] Newman and [Adam] Frazier and Polanco, you got guys who are not gonna hit .150 on the year,” Bell said. “Good things are coming. We just have to keep pressing forward. Keep trusting the work day. Keep trusting the routine. Keep trusting our preparation for these guys. Once they come, they’re going to come in bunches. We’re going to score a lot of runs. It’s going to be a lot of fun baseball.”

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