PITTSBURGH — The Pirates might lose 90-plus games this season, but they played like a playoff team against the Cubs — and it wasn’t close.
Strong starting pitching helped carry the Cubs during the first week of the season, but after Jake Arrieta’s start Thursday, they didn’t have the same success in Pittsburgh. Add in inconsistent hitting for the third consecutive series, and you have the makings for a rough weekend.
The 7-1 loss to the Pirates on Sunday highlighted some of the Cubs’ early-season concerns as they dropped their second series in a row ahead of another National League Central matchup.
“I would say we have to play a little bit cleaner brand of baseball,” manager David Ross said. “I know that [all] the mistakes didn’t show up on the board, but some of their leadoff hitters got on base on plays that I thought our guys usually make.”
Back in Pittsburgh, where he pitched for five seasons, right-hander Trevor Williams didn’t have the homecoming he was hoping for. He got hit hard, allowing five runs and 10 hits against his former team and forcing Ross to turn to the bullpen to cover a lot of outs for the second straight day.
The Cubs got only five innings from Williams on Sunday and Zach Davies on Saturday, forcing the bullpen to pitch 11 innings. That kind of usage has lasting effects, and with another three-game series starting Monday against the Brewers, it has the potential to affect the rest of the Cubs’ week.
“It’s a game of inches, and we executed the pitches that we wanted to, we went with the game plan that we wanted to execute,” Williams said. “We wanted to attack and it worked in a sense, but they did a good job putting the ball in play and singling me to death. Then they got the big hit where they needed to.”
The Cubs have struggled to score runs in their first three series. The bats went quiet again, scoring just three runs in the series’ last two games after an 11-hit outing Thursday.
“As a group, we’re not having the right approach the first three series,” catcher Willson Contreras said. “That’s something that I talk to the guys [about]. We have to take care of that. We have to come up as a group and have an approach as a group. I think that’s something that we need to really work on.”
The offense went 1-for-23 with runners in scoring position in the series and left 19 on base. Regardless of the Cubs’ pitching, it’s hard to win without having run support on a nightly basis, especially for a team depending on offense to help carry the load.
“We got some chances today to get a little bit closer in this ballgame, and we just weren’t able to capitalize on some opportunities with runners in scoring position,” Ross said. “First series so far that we haven’t done a really good job of that, in my opinion. [There were] some free runs that felt like they were out there at times that we didn’t quite take advantage of, but that’s baseball. They made some pitches when they had to.”
“It looks like we’re trying to hit the fastball, and we’re not getting the fastball,” Contreras said. “So that’s where we make our adjustment. If you’re not getting the fastball, try to look for something else and then give up one pitch. We can’t go to home plate trying to hit two pitches at one time, so it’s one or the other. That’s why I say our approach needs to get better.”