After a blip in his opening start, Yu Darvish was back in second-half form Friday night at Wrigley Field, throwing six shutout innings in the Chicago Cubs’ 6-3 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Cubs, showing a sense of urgency in the short season, improved to 5-2 and have won the first game of all three series they’ve played. With a relatively easy schedule, they could get on a roll with two more games against the Pirates this weekend, followed by four against the rebuilding Kansas City Royals.
Then comes their first showdown with the defending division champion St. Louis Cardinals, who had two players test positive for COVID-19 on Friday.
Darvish was in control from the outset, allowing only a second-inning single to Colin Moran and a fifth inning single to Cole Tucker while striking out seven and walking one. in his season debut last week against the Milwaukee Brewers, Darvish lasted only four innings, allowing three runs on six hits.
The Cubs starting pitching has been better than most expected, with a 2.70 ERA in seven games. Now manager David Ross must figure out his bullpen, which came in with a 9.64 ERA but managed to get through this night without any negative Yelp reviews — well, almost.
Craig Kimbrel pitched the ninth with a five-run lead and served up back-to-back home runs to the first two hitters, Josh Bell and Moran. On the plus side, he wasn’t booed by the fake crowd noise.
Facing a Pirates team that came in ranked last in the majors with a .171 average and .241 on-base percentage was like gnawing on soft candy for Darvish.
Ross said Darvish “didn’t really labor at all throughout the night.” Darvish had 18 swings-and-misses overall.
“We tried to throw a knuckle curveball from early in the count, and that was it,” Darvish said. “That makes every pitch look good.”
Darvish had a dominant second-half in 2019, with a 2.76 ERA ad 118 strikeouts in 13 starts, living up to his contract for the first prolonged stretch. He said he feels the “same as the second half” but admitted he needs to work on his mechanics, command and cutter.
“I feel like it’s very close, or the same,” he said.
Some teams go through a rebuilding phase. The Pirates seems content to go into rerun mode, and this team harks back to a not-so-distant era in which they experienced 20 consecutive losing seasons from 1993-2012. They’ve traded away the likes of Gerrit Cole, Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows in recent years without getting much in return.
Darvish issued a leadoff walk in the first but retired 13 of the next 14 batters and never allowed a baserunner past first in his six innings. The last batter he faced, Kevin Newman, hit a shot that bounced off Darvish’s backside but ricocheted and straight to shortstop Javier Baez, who easily threw Newman. Darvish didn’t seem fazed but didn’t come back for another inning.
The Cubs scored the game’s first run in the third without hitting the ball past the mound. After Kris Bryant walked with one out and Anthony Rizzo was hit by the pitch for a league-leading sixth time, Baez laid down a perfect bunt that died in the grass between the plate and the mound.
Pirates starter Trevor Williams rushed his throw to first, which wound up in right field to score Bryant and leave runners on second and third. Williams then struck out Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras to escape further damage, but it was only a matter of time for him. Williams came in with a 3-6 record against the Cubs with a 6.30 ERA.
Jason Kipnis cranked a 418-foot solo home run with two outs in the fourth to make it 2-0, giving the Cubs at least one homer in their first seven games. The last time that occurred was in 1958, when they homered in their first eight games during a 6-2 start that turned out to be a mirage.
Kipnis and Nico Hoerner both have gotten off to good starts while sharing second base. While it’s a small sample size, Hoerner is hitting .389, and Kipnis is at .455.
“I probably won’t end the season with a .450 average,” Kipnis said, joking he might ay drop to .420 by the end of the season.
Jason Heyward added a two-run single in the fifth, and the Cubs poured it on in the eighth with a two-run single by Anthony Rizzo. The five-five run lead was more than enough for any closer, even though Kimbrel was a pinata again.
“He’s going to pump that heater in there and see guys jumping on it early,” Ross said. “He’s still working on some stuff. He’s not where he wants to be yet, but it’s nice to give him a little cushion there and work through some stuff.”
The Cubs will attempt to win their third straight series of the young season Saturday night when Tyler Chatwood faces Mitch Keller.
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