Pirates ready to take aim on 1st place in NL Central
CLEVELAND — While street sweepers clear away debris from the past two days of celebrating baseball and its stars, All-Star closer Felipe Vazquez will pack up the car Wednesday morning and return to Pittsburgh with his family.
But he won’t be there long. It’s off to Chicago’s Wrigley Field on Thursday for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ three-game series starting Friday against the division-leading Cubs.
“We know a lot’s going to happen in the next four, five weeks,” Pirates All-Star Josh Bell said.
The race in the National League Central awaits, and it promises to be an interesting final 2½ months for any team able to remain in contention.
The Cubs lead the division by a half-game but are only four games over .500 (47-43). The Milwaukee Brewers (47-44) are a half-game behind, followed by the St. Louis Cardinals (44-44), Pirates (44-45) and Cincinnati Reds (41-46). Only 4½ games separate first place from last.
“It’s the toughest division in baseball, in my opinion,” Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant said Tuesday before the All-Star Game at Progressive Field, “because we’re the closest.
“The Reds are super underrated. The Pirates always are going to give us a tough time. The Cardinals and Brewers are always there.
“We would like to pull ahead and separate ourselves. We just haven’t been able to do that.”
The Cubs have lost eight of their past 12 games, including three of four at PNC Park. Meanwhile, the Pirates have won eight of 12 to move within 2½ games of first place.
At the end of the weekend, the Pirates can be anywhere from 5½ games behind the Cubs or a half-game ahead.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon fueled the rivalry on the Fourth of July when he had to be restrained from approaching the Pirates dugout after pitcher Jordan Lyles threw too close to his batters. Maddon said he “can’t wait” to meet the Pirates this weekend.
Joe Maddon – with an empty glass of red wine on his desk – said Pirates tendency to go up and in has gotten out of hand. Said he “can’t wait” to face Pirates in Chicago next week.
— Will Graves (@WillGravesAP) July 4, 2019
Was it just talk? Bryant thinks so.
Bryant, a former National League MVP and Rookie of the Year, said he doesn’t expect matters to get further out of hand this weekend. After all, he suggested, it was just a calculated move by his manager.
“Things were handled,” Bryant said. “It’s more a spark for us. We needed to come together as a team. Joe took it upon himself to kind of light that spark for us.”
Bell said there’s always at least a trace of tension when the Cubs and Pirates get together.
“I feel like things have been tense with us and the Cubs since I got called up (in 2016),” he said. “It’s one of those rivalries that is going to last a really long time. We’ll see what happens when we get to their place.
“I don’t think anybody is expecting, at any given moment, someone is going to run one high and tight. We’ll deal with that whenever we get there.”
Bell has done his part to keep the fire going. He singled off then-Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta on the first pitch he saw as a big-leaguer. In his second at-bat, he hit a pinch-hit grand slam against the Cubs’ Adam Warren. For his career, Bell has 10 homers and 34 RBIs against the Cubs. Both figures are more than he has recorded against any other team.
Bell hopes the work he received during the Home Run Derby on Monday and the All-Star Game will help keep him sharp.
“Being able to get more reps here, keep things finely tuned, hopefully it helps out,” he said.
The Pirates and Cubs players got along well in the National League clubhouse the past two days. Vazquez said he knows Cubs All-Stars Willson Contreras and Javier Baez away from the field. Bryant called Bell “an awesome dude.”
“It’s kind of cool to talk to them, just because you’re playing against them so much and you want to beat them so bad on the field,” Bryant said.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .