With 13 years of age separating them, Gerrit Cole and Marlon Byrd might not have much in common off the field.
They’ve been pretty similar on it, as both are playing their best ball while trying to push the Pittsburgh Pirates into the playoffs – and beyond.
The 23-year-old Cole threw seven strong innings and Byrd, 36, stroked a tiebreaking solo home run in the bottom of the seventh, as the Pirates moved back into first place in the National League Central with a 2-1 victory over the Chicago Cubs on Saturday night at PNC Park.
Cole limited the Cubs to five hits while avoiding major trouble in his first and last frames. Chicago (63-85) got a run on two hits in its opening raps, but Neil Walker’s accurate relay from the outfield prevented the visitors from going up 2-0. In the seventh, with the score tied at 1, the rookie righty Cole retired Dioner Navarro and Starlin Castro to strand runners at second and third.
Cole finished with a seven-strikeout, three-walk line, his third straight excellent outing under the pressure of a pennant race. With the capacity crowd still buzzing from Cole’s grand escape in the top of the seventh, Byrd took Cubs reliever James Russell over the right-center field wall, the Pirates’ fifth home run in the past two games.
Scoreless, hitless innings from ace relievers Tony Watson and Mark Melancon followed, with the latter getting credit for his 15th save despite a runner reaching first on a wild-pitch third strike. But Wellington Castillo bounced into a game-ending double play to elevate the Pirates (86-62) within a half-game of St. Louis for the Central’s top spot. Less than an hour later, the Cardinals lost to the Mariners to put the race dead even with 14 games to play.
Byrd’s homer, his 23rd, continued a dream season for the former Cub, who is boasting a triple-slash line of .290/.335/.520 (AVG/OBP/SLG). He has maintained that level of production since joining the Pirates three weeks ago via a trade with the Mets.
Jose Tabata hit a bomb of his own the inning previous, sending a center-cut fastball into the bullpens beyond left-center field. Tabata’s fifth dinger was the only run allowed by Cubs starter Scott Baker, who allowed just three hits and struck out six in his second start of 2013.
Each side collected just five hits in a departure from Friday’s 5-4 Cubs victory that saw five combined home runs, including a remarkable three in three at-bats by the Pirates. Pittsburgh won the series opener 3-1 on Thursday.
Cole, the top overall pick in the 2011 MLB Draft, got the starting rotation back on track after a mediocre performance by Charlie Morton on Friday. Cole has his best swing-and-miss stuff working Saturday, running his fastball into the high 90s and inducing whiffs with a sharp slider. He has posted a 1.35 ERA in three September starts while striking out slightly more than a batter per inning.
Cole’s biggest bugaboo in his debut big-league season has been slow starts, and that was evident again against the Cubs. Castro led off the game with a single, then Anthony Rizzo walked one out later. Cleanup batter Nate Schierholtz drove a high fastball into the right-center gap to score Castro; however, a Byrd-to-Walker-to-Russell Martin relay cut Rizzo down at the plate.
Justin Morneau and Cole had the only Pirates’ hits against Baker until the sixth, when Tabata kept the Pirates’ recent power surge going.
The Bucs can win the four-game series with a victory Sunday afternoon at 1:35. Pittsburgh’s Francisco Liriano will oppose Travis Wood in a lefty-on-lefty pitching matchup.