CHICAGO -- Back in the day, when on a hot streak, the Pirates would commonly be said to be "going like 60," a reference to the 1960 World Series champs who remain one of baseball's most storied teams.The current edition truly is "going like 60," reaching that number of wins on Aug. 1 with an 8-4 victory over the Cubs in Wednesday's rubber game at Wrigley Field.
The Bucs became the fourth Major League team this season to reach that nice round number which, really, is all it is.However, with five relievers picking up after Jeff Karstens' effective start, the Pirates did capture their 14th series in the last 18, further testament to their collective maturation. They did this after being handed their hats in Monday's opener, 14-4. "More than anything," Karstens said, "it shows a lot about our team, our character. We fight back. After that [opener] we wanted to win the series, and that's what we did." Something else that shows a lot about Karstens' team: On a day the Cubs clearly avoided Andrew McCutchen as much as they could (left-hander Travis Wood walked him in each of his first two at-bats) and the new Nos. 4-5 combo didn't take full advantage (Gaby Sanchez and Travis Snider combined for 2-for-7 without an RBI) -- the Pirates still went large and scored big. Only reason they didn't win bigger was Joel Hanrahan's need for work. The Bucs' closer hasn't had a save opportunity for six days and was brought into the ninth inning of an 8-1 game. Hanrahan added to the perception of closers struggling in non-save situations: The Cubs hit for the cycle-plus-one against him, bunching two singles, a double, a triple and a home run (by Welington Castillo). "I had some pitches to hit ... they're not gonna throw fastballs right down the middle," said McCutchen, who still managed to go 2-for-3 to raise his Major League-leading average to a new season-high .373. "So I took a couple of walks, and let the guys behind me do some damage." Most of that damage came late: The game was a 2-1 gut-check until the Pirates broke it open with a five-run eighth on Garrett Jones' pinch two-run single and Michael McKenry's three-run homer -- his 10th in 132 at-bats. Manager Clint Hurdle had considered it a good sign the night before when his players were urging each other to add-on after a four-run first. "Know what?" he had turned to one of the coaches on the bench, "These guys are getting it. They're beginning to talk the talk and walk the walk." Not to mention, balk the balk. That made perfect baseball sense in Wednesday's third inning when, after a Starlin-Starling standoff -- the teams exchanged early solo homers by Starlin Castro of the Cubs and Starling Marte of the Bucs -- the Pirates took a 2-1 lead when Wood's third-inning balk scored McCutchen from third base. Scoring on a balk may seem unconventional, but not for the Bad New Bucs. On this ongoing road trip alone, they have scored three runs on wild pitches, another on a passed ball, and now without the ball ever leaving the pitcher's hand. On a typically hot, muggy North Side day, Karstens was excused after five very sharp innings. He allowed three hits, including Castro's first-inning homer, while walking one and striking out four. The right-hander's day was shortened by having to make 48 pitches in the first two innings. "After that, I got on the same page with McKenry, with good rhythm and good tempo," Karstens said. "As the game went on, I felt a lot more comfortable. Even stronger." Wood invited trouble in the third by pitching around McCutchen for the second time, walking him with one away. Snider's two-out single up the middle escorted McCutchen to third, in position to score on Wood's balk. Josh Harrison, tending second base as Neil Walker was given a day off, made a huge defensive contribution in the second inning. With Bryan LaHair on third base and one out, Harrison raced in to backhand Castillo's slow roller across the mound and nail him at first, freezing the runner at third. LaHair never did budge from there as, following a walk of No. 8 hitter Luis Valbuena, Karstens fanned Wood to end the frame. Protecting a 2-1 lead as the second man out of the bullpen behind starter Karstens, Tony Watson surrendered a leadoff single in the seventh to Jeff Baker, who then started a personal tour of the bases before hitting a wall at third. With Watson still on the mound, Baker stole second. When Jared Hughes took over, Baker stole third -- meaning he got a good look at pinch-hitter Joe Mather's grounder to Pedro Alvarez that ended the inning. Baker's two steals improved the opposition's total against the Pirates to 88, in 97 attempts. A genuinely atrocious rate. Yet, only about one-third of those stolen bases have been converted into runs, a testament to pitchers' focus on hitters. The Pirates maintained the momentum from that escape with the five-run eighth, and it was time to laugh. Or, rather, they continued laughing for a 104th straight game. Hurdle did not want to look past Thursday's off-day to Friday, the start of a big series against the National League Central-leading Reds at Great American Ball Park. "But I will promise you this: We'll be there on time," the manager said.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.