PITTSBURGH – All these issues will be magnified in October.
The Cubs didn’t measure up to the Pittsburgh Pirates in this potential playoff preview, unraveling in the eighth inning of a 5-4 Game 1 loss and exposing their trouble spots during Tuesday’s doubleheader at PNC Park.
“There’s a lot of gifted runs in that game both ways,” manager Joe Maddon said afterward. “When you get to that latter part of the game, we have to do a better job of forcing the other team to beat us — as opposed to self-inflicted wounds.”
For all of their talented young hitters and good clubhouse vibes, the Cubs weren’t built as a defense-first team and that farm system hasn’t produced enough impact pitchers yet to diversify the bullpen.
The Pirates didn’t play a perfect game, but they quickly capitalized when Justin Grimm gave up a leadoff walk to Pedro Alvarez in the eighth inning.
Pinch-runner Pedro Florimon stole second base and hustled to third when Miguel Montero’s throw bounced past Starlin Castro into center field. That went down as an error for the veteran catcher and Florimon scored the go-ahead run on Starling Marte’s sacrifice fly.
“I’m beating myself,” Grimm said. “The other teams aren’t beating me. I’m beating myself.”
Just like that, the Cubs wasted the four runs they manufactured against Gerrit Cole, the stud right-hander lined up for the National League’s wild-card game on Oct. 7 (unless the Pirates catch the St. Louis Cardinals).
The Cubs have built a relentless American League-style lineup that will keep gathering intelligence on Cole, the No. 1 overall pick out of UCLA in the 2011 draft. Cole pitched into the seventh inning before turning the game over to Joakim Soria, who threw two wild pitches, allowing Castro and Tommy La Stella to score the game-tying runs.
But the Cubs know that power pitching plays in October, and they have question marks at the back of the rotation beyond Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta, not to mention a bullpen that’s been trying to cover up for those issues pretty much all season.
Jason Hammel appeared to be in trouble from the start, walking two batters and hitting another in a three-run first inning. Hammel walked off the mound with two outs in the fourth and the Cubs already trailing 4-1, not the way to begin a doubleheader against a team that’s 30 games over .500.
“Pretty embarrassing,” Hammel said. “It pisses me off. I’m a starter – set the tone – and I haven’t done it in awhile. I got to figure it out.
“What I’m doing right now isn’t acceptable. So I got to get to work and we’re running out of time. I take a lot of pride in my work and right now it’s not translating.
“Outstanding job with the guys to bounce back and make a game of it. But they’ve been doing that too often. I need to start pulling my own weight here.”
[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]
The Cubs built up enough of a cushion that they shouldn’t collapse down the stretch. But there will be nowhere to hide in a one-game playoff.
Grimm (3-5, 2.22 ERA) has been such a huge piece to this bullpen, a reason why the Cubs are positioned for the playoffs. But there’s always a price to be paid. The line from his last 10 appearances: 8.1 innings, 12 runs (6 earned), 8 hits, 8 walks.
“I just got to find my confidence and get my aggressiveness back,” Grimm said. “Right now, I’m just trying to finish out strong and then worry about October in October.”