Relief pitching woes doom Cubs as Pirates sweep
Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon (70) argues with umpire Joe West (22) during the first inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field. - Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Relief pitching woes doom Cubs as Pirates sweep

by - Senior Writer -

CHICAGO -- After not getting swept in over nine months, the Chicago Cubs (6-6) were skunked in their weekend series against the division rival Pittsburgh Pirates (6-6), marking the first sweep suffered by the North Siders since a four-game series at the New York Mets last season.

It took a pinch hitter to put the Chicago Cubs on the scoreboard, as Tommy La Stella drove home the Cubs' only run of the game when he knocked a pinch-hit double to left in the seventh inning that plated right fielder Jason Heyward. Unfortunately for Chicago's sake, that proved to be its only run of the day, with the Pirates capping off their three-game sweep at Wrigley Field with a 6-1 victory.

The final score is certainly deceptive, as Cubs starter Jon Lester produced a solid seven-inning appearance, in which he allowed zero runs and only three hits. Relief pitching was disastrous for the Cubs, on the other hand, which was a theme of the series for Chicago.

Second-year Pirates starting pitcher Jameson Taillon fared well through the first six of innings of today's game, giving up a respectable five hits and striking out six batters during that stretch. Taillon was shaky at the start, however, allowing three singles in the bottom of the first.

Leadoff man Kyle Schwarber, who went 2-3 on the day, started off the bottom of the first with a hit to shallow center. An ensuing double play made the hit moot, but the Cubs followed that up with two consecutive two-out hits. Taillon was able to avoid giving up a run, though, by striking Cubs shortstop Addison Russell out looking to end the inning, which marked Russell's seventh strikeout of the young season.

Cubs ace Lester dealt with a tenuous situation early on, too, with Pirates slugger Andrew McCutchen crushing a first-inning triple to deep right, but a groundout in the next at-bat ended the Pirates' scoring threat. The triple proved to be McCutchen's only hit of the afternoon.

Lester was nearly unhittable for the remainder of his start, with the exception of a fourth-inning jam that was incited by an error. In the top of the fourth, a throwing error incurred by Russell with two outs extended the inning. Pirates Catcher Francisco Cervelli then singled to center to put runners on the corners, but Lester forced the next batter into a grounder for the third and final out.

Until the seventh inning, the Cubs were fairly impotent offensively, consistently failing to bring runners in scoring position home. The bottom of the fifth saw Chicago second baseman Javier Báez double to left with one out, but the proceeding two batters faltered, leaving Báez stranded at second.

The Cubs were finally able to figure Taillon out in the seventh with a successful inning sparked by a leadoff single from right fielder Jason Heyward, who is hitting .286 thus far. Chicago caught a break in the next at-bat, as a misplayed grounder by Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer on what should have been an easy double play put Cubs runners on first and second. La Stella was then presented with his chance to shine, and he produced with the RBI double.

Later in the inning, catcher Willson Contreras, who has already made several questionable decisions on the base path this season, attempted to make it home on a grounder to third but was thrown out, thereby resulting in the Cubs leaving possible runs on the table.

With a 1-0 lead heading into the eighth, Cubs manager Joe Maddon opted to pull Lester and go with veteran reliever Koji Uehara, among a multitude of other lineup changes. Uehara's outing began on a bad note with a walk, and it continued to worsen from there, as a double and another walk loaded the bases with no outs. After that, Mercer came up to the plate with the chance to redeem himself for his costly error, and he did just that by singling to center and tying the game up at one.

Understandably, Uehara was then yanked from the mound. His replacement, Hector Rondon, mitigated some of the potential damage, forcing the first two batters whom he faced into grounders. The first resulted in a force-out at home, but the second resulted in a run that gave Pittsburgh a 2-1 lead, as the Cubs were unable to out the runner at the dish. Thereafter, a fly ball to right provided Heyward, who boasts a cannon for an arm, an opportunity to throw the advancing lead runner out at home, but his throw was way off of the mark, culminating in the Pirates scoring their third run in what was a dreadful bottom half of the eighth inning for the Cubs.

The game was put out of reach for the Cubs in the top of ninth when Pirates left fielder Adam Frazier crushed a Justin Grimm fastball over the wall in center field for a three-run homer. Grimm, who has struggled mightily recently, was out of sync from the start, throwing several bad pitches, including a wild pitch that advanced a runner. Subpar relief pitching was the Cubs' lone hindrance off and on last season, and it has already plagued Chicago several times this year.

Despite only having six hits, as opposed to Chicago's seven, Pittsburgh took advantage of inept relief pitching and a few defensive mishaps to defeat the Cubs 6-1 and put a bow on a three-game road sweep of the defending World Series champions. Frazier led the way for the Bucs by going 3-4 and hitting his first dinger of the season. Taillon earned the win to move to 1-0, and Uehara (0-1) was handed the loss for his eighth-inning implosion.

With 39,422 people on hand to take in some Easter Sunday baseball at Wrigley, the Cubs disappointed today both offensively and defensively. They will look to rebound in their upcoming three-game homestand against the Milwaukee Brewers (7-6).

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