Column: Cubs win battle, but Pirates can’t be overlooked in wild NL Central race
CHICAGO — When the Pirates acquired Chris Archer last July for some of their top prospects, it was viewed as a statement that management was ready to go for it again after having traded stars Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole the previous winter.
“The ownership and front office stepped up with a couple of moves they made at the deadline,” Archer said upon his arrival in Pittsburgh. “I’m stoked. It has been a while since I’ve played winning, meaningful baseball, and that’s why you play.”
But almost a year later, the deal looks like one of the worst in Pirates history. They went 10-17 in August to fall out of contention and have struggled to get to .500 the first half of this season.
Archer entered the second half at 3-6 with a gaudy 5.49 ERA, while the two top prospects in the deal, Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow, have thrived with the Rays — although Glasnow hasn’t pitched since May 10 with right forearm tightness.
But Archer showed Friday that he still has the stuff to pitch like an ace, carrying a one-hit shutout into the seventh inning before tiring in a 4-3 loss to the Cubs on a sun-drenched afternoon at Wrigley Field.
“We showed the same fight that we had in the first half,” Archer said. “We’re not going to give up. We’re going to be resilient. That’s kind of our M.O. We lost, but there are a lot of good things to take away from this game as a team.”
The Cubs aren’t going to run away with the National League Central, much as they’d like to believe their history of strong second halves under manager Joe Maddon will repeat itself. They might have the most talent in the division but they haven’t shown that killer instinct of years ago and were lucky to get out of Pittsburgh in their recent series without being swept.
“They gave it to us that series,” third baseman Kris Bryant said before the rematch. “We knew we’d be playing them coming out of the break. Looking forward to turning it around as a team in the second half.
“I don’t know who our main rival is. Everybody in our division is really good, everybody has gotten better and they’re giving us a run for our money. All those games are pretty intense.”
Friday was no different, featuring a pitching duel between Archer and Yu Darvish, without any of the shenanigans that sent Cubs manager Joe Maddon into a frenzy on the Fourth of July at PNC Park.
You felt Friday’s game could be decided on one fluky play, and when right fielder Melky Cabrera lost Kris Bryant’s fly in the in the sun in the seventh, that moment seemingly had arrived. The ball landed barely foul at the brick wall, and given a second chance, Bryant homered off Archer for the game’s first run in what turned into a three-run inning.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said he couldn’t tell whether Cabrera should have caught it. But things like that seem to happen a lot in baseball.
“That’s what makes the game crazy,” Hurdle said. “And great.”
Even when the Pirates appeared to be down for the count, they bounced back. Starling Marte belted a three-run, eighth-inning home run onto Waveland Avenue off Pedro Strop, the 14th blown save by the Cubs bullpen. Marte leads NL center fielders with 48 RBIs and 34 extra-base hits.
“I think Marte is one of the most talented players in the game,” Archer said. “I played against Mookie Betts for four or five seasons. Raw talent, raw ability, I’d say Marte has him beat.
“Mookie Betts obviously produces at a super high level and is MVP. But Marte is faster, has a stronger arm, has more raw power. You look at those things people are blessed with, and across the board, Marte is one of the top-five most blessed and talented players.”
Fortunately for the Cubs, Jason Heyward saved the day with an RBI single in the eighth after reliever Kyle Crick issued a pair of walks, leaving them in first place for another day.
“I think if I get ahead of people, it’s a different ballgame,” Crick said.
It’s hard to figure out these Pirates, a team with a solid lineup and little pitching. They were nine games out of first place on June 13 with a 30-38 record but won 14 of 21 before the break to creep to within 2 1/2 games of the Cubs entering this series.
How can a team with this kind of pitching possibly be a contender? It doesn’t really make sense. The Pirates have the second-worst pitching in the NL with a 4.91 ERA, which doesn’t bode well for the second half in the Year of the Juiced Ball.
But Archer’s performance gives them hope. The pitcher they thought they acquired a year ago finally showed up in a big game.
“That’s as well as we’ve seen him pitch in a Pirate uniform,” Hurdle said.
Archer was pleased but said the seventh inning left him with “a sour taste in my mouth.”
Still, if Archer can pitch like that the remainder of the season and get a little help from the rest of the rotation, the Pirates could very well win this crazy division. Their lineup is legit, and they have 11 more games against the Cubs.
It’s going to be a wild, wild finish, and one strange bounce could decide who gets in and who doesn’t.