PITTSBURGH – It took the Cubs less than nine innings back in Pittsburgh for all the high emotion and bad blood to resurface from last October’s wild-card playoff game that resulted in a bench-clearing incident on the way to a one-sided Cubs victory.
It’s barely May, but the Cubs and Pirates made it clear in one game how rough and treacherous the road to the National League Central division title might be this year.
In fact, if the Cubs’ 7-2 victory Monday night over the Pirates at PNC Park in their first meeting of the year is any indication, the Cardinals might have to take a number and get back in line.
“A lot of intensity there,” said winning pitcher Jason Hammel (4-0). “A lot was probably made of it just because of the way things went last year in the wild-card game. It’s a very heated rivalry.”
The way this one played out, the Pirates left some wondering if the Cubs’ late-season heroics last year and hyped-expectations surge into this one isn’t already in the Pirates’ heads.
“I wouldn’t really say getting in a team’s head,” Hammel said, “but I do feel like both teams are trying to do a little more than they need to right now just because of the spotlight.”
No? It was only May 2 when a one-run game devolved quickly in the middle and late innings into a battle of hit batters, war of words and Joe Maddon gamesmanship through use of the replay challenge system.
Leading 6-2 in the sixth, Hammel hit Starling Marte with a pitch leading off the inning.
The Pirates didn’t score, but they got one back a half inning later when Kyle Lobstein drilled Ben Zobrist with a pitch leading off the top of the seventh.
Home plate umpire Laz Diaz quickly issued warnings to the benches. And within seconds, Maddon was jawing from a distance with Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli – a guy Maddon called a “good dude, a really good dude” before the game, talking about a party they attended in the offseason.
“It happens,” Maddon said. “You have to vent on occasion. The worst thing you could possibly do for your health long-term is hold that stuff in.”
Maddon said he was “directing my comments” to Lobstein. At which point Cervelli spoke up.
A half inning later, the Cubs were given credit for a double play after a close play at first. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle successfully challenged, to overrule the call at first.
At which point Maddon called for his own – unsuccessful – challenge on whether a perfectly ordinary slide into second was illegal under MLB’s new takeout rule.
“I had no clue what I was doing. I just knew that I could challenge,” he said. “There’s certain things you’ve got to do in the moment. I couldn’t walk away from it.”
They’ve got 18 more of these to play this year.
“It’s probably going to be a battle all year long,” Zobrist said. “Going into this series, it’s so early in the season I didn’t expect there to be any repercussions for anything that happened last year. But obviously they took exception to the hit-by-pitch.”
Maybe the Pirates take exception to being perhaps the most overlooked team in the National League between all the Cubs’ Embrace-the-Target hype and the perennial fawning over the Cardinals Way.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say overlooked,” said Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen, the former MVP who homered in the first. “But they’re not paying attention to us as much. And that’s fine.
“We’ve made it to the wild-card the past three years, and the way society is, they like what’s new. And when you give them something that’s the same, they kind of want to turn the page and move onto something else.
“That’s the way life is. So we take it with a grain of salt.”
And, maybe once in a while, a pound of flesh.
“Obviously, after that one-game playoff – they’re hungry to show who they are,” said Cubs leadoff man Dexter Fowler, who reached three times and scored Monday.
Imagine when Jake Arrieta gets his chance Tuesday to take the PNC mound for the first time since his dominating performance in October – a game in which he was hit by a pitch late, igniting the bench-clearing incident.
“It’s part of the game, really,” Arrieta said, when reminded he didn’t seem especially surprised to get hit. “I think everybody’s a little overly sensitive, not just in this game, but in society overall. Just kind of understanding the circumstances. It is what it is.”