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With Kimbrel out and bullpen ‘thin,’ Davies goes long as Cubs hang on to beat Pirates 3-2

Zach Davies escaped a seventh-inning jam with no damage done, the bullpen scrambled — and then some — in search of a 27th out and the Cubs notched their fourth straight “W,” tying a season high.

Pittsburgh Pirates v Chicago Cubs
Davies had his best start as a Cub.
Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

Bases loaded for the Pirates. Nobody out. A 3-0 Cubs lead in the opener of a weekend series at Wrigley Field. Struggling Zach Davies still on the mound in the seventh inning, already his deepest foray into a game in seven starts as a Cub.

Oh, and closer Craig Kimbrel apparently unavailable to do his thing.

Seriously, what could have gone wrong?

That’s easy: nothing. These are the rejuvenated Cubs, after all. Davies escaped his jam with no damage done, the bullpen scrambled — and then some — in search of a 27th out and the Cubs held on for 3-2 victory. It was their fourth in a row, tying a season high, and their sixth win in their last eight games.

The absence of Kimbrel in the ninth — after the Cubs were off Thursday — was puzzling. With a 3-0 lead, manager David Ross stuck with Andrew Chafin, who’d pitched the eighth, to start the inning. After Colin Moran’s leadoff single, Chafin gave way to Ryan Tepera. Two runs were in by the time Rex Brothers got the call with a runner on first and two outs. Brothers gave up a bloop single to Wilmer Difo and hit Adam Frazier with a pitch before fighting back from a 3-1 count to retire Bryan Reynolds with the bases loaded.

It was Brothers’ first save since 2013, when he was with the Rockies. Easy breezy, right?

“He was just down today,” Ross said of Kimbrel, adding that the closer was not injured.

And that’s all Ross — citing concerns about “competitive advantage” — gave on the subject of what he termed a “thin” bullpen. Ross did say he expected Kimbrel, who pitched Tuesday and Wednesday against the Dodgers, to be available Saturday.

Sweeping the Dodgers for the first three wins of the homestand was unexpected and impressive. Hanging on to beat the last-place Pirates isn’t as exciting as back-to-back extra-inning walk-offs against the defending World Series champs, but it’s the kind of thing that has to happen if the Cubs — at .500 (16-16) for the sixth time — are going to be more than vaguely interesting on the field in 2021.

Davies (2-2) found the soft, early contact he typically seeks, went beyond five innings for only the second time this season and beat the Pirates for the second time.

For the right-hander, it all came down to the seventh frame, when the Pirates loaded the bases on singles by Moran and Phillip Evans and a walk to Jacob Stallings. That’s when Davies broke out the Gold Glove he has never won, but perhaps should have a time or two. First, he induced a slow bouncer by Todd Frazier, barehanded it near the third-base line and threw home for a slick forceout.

“That was legit,” Ross said. “I don’t know if I’ve seen a play like that in a while.”

Davies next got Ka’ai Tom to bounce directly back to him, gloved the ball and fired home to catcher Willson Contreras to start a threat-extinguishing double play. It was the start — and the finish to a start — the Cubs were looking for after similarly struggling Kyle Hendricks pitched a seven-inning shutout against the Dodgers his last time out.

“You know we’ve done it a few years now,” Davies said. “You just have to get back on track and the season will turn around.”

Ross referred to the results against the Dodgers as “character wins,” with a lot of different players contributing in a lot of different ways. There weren’t as many contributors in this one, though Joc Pederson did have a three-hit day — oh, how needed for him — from the leadoff spot.

“It’s a long season,” Pederson said. “A lot of good players on this team, and it’s fun to be a part of it.”