This week, the Pittsburgh Pirates make their first post-All-Star Break visit to Wrigley Field, a venue they’ve had success at in 2017. How have the Pirates been able to play so well at the home of the defending World Series Champions?
In 2016, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series for the first time since 1908. In the regular season, they won 103 games, largely due to a dominant 57-24 record at home. The Cubs rolled at Wrigley Field pummeling teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates to the tune of an 8-1 record.
This season, the tables have turned. The Pirates are 5-1 when playing at the Cubs’ home ballpark. That includes a three-game sweep from Apr. 14-16 and taking two of three from July 7-9.
Pittsburgh returns to Wrigley Field on Monday hoping to stay afloat in the playoff race. To do so, it will need another strong showing at “The Friendly Confines.”
Stronger starting pitching
Last season, Pirates starters posted a 6.89 ERA at Wrigley Field. That figure was largely buoyed by two poor outings by Francisco Liriano in which he allowed eight runs over 4.3 innings on May 13, 2016, and surrendered four runs across 5.2 innings on June 17, 2016, both Pirates losses. Pirates starters only tossed one quality start: Gerrit Cole‘s eight shutout innings on May 15, 2016. This was Pittsburgh’s only victory against Chicago at Wrigley Field in 2016.
The Pirates have quadrupled that total in 2017 with four quality starts in six games. What’s more, that number could be higher. Chad Kuhl allowed one run over three innings on July 9, 2017, but was pulled after 58 pitches. Kuhl was making an emergency spot for the sick Jameson Taillon and had previously pitched three days prior.
Pittsburgh has allowed three runs or less in five of the six games, with Tyler Glasnow‘s four earned runs allowed over five innings on Apr. 15 the only outlier. The Pirates still won that game.
What a difference a year makes.
The Pirates have entered the sixth inning trailing the Cubs in five of their six meetings at Wrigley Field in 2017. Nonetheless, Pittsburgh has come to win all but one of those five games. In the final four innings of those games, the Pirates have scored a combined 21 runs. That has accounted for nearly 57-percent of their total runs at Wrigley Field this season.
Last year, Pittsburgh struck for 19 runs in the sixth through ninth innings. That may not seem too bad, but that is 19 runs over 36 innings. This year, those 21 runs in the sixth through ninth innings have come across 24 innings. Seven times the Pirates entered the sixth trailing, but they did not rally back to win any of those games. That includes Aug. 29, 2016, when Pittsburgh scored a combined five runs in the sixth and seventh innings to take a 6-3 lead, but the Cubs scored three times in the final two innings and eventually won in 13.
This year, those 21 runs in the sixth through ninth innings have come across 24 innings. Seven times the Pirates entered the sixth trailing, but they did not rally back to win any of those games. That includes Aug. 29, 2016, when Pittsburgh scored a combined five runs in the sixth and seventh innings to take a 6-3 lead, but the Cubs scored three times in the final two innings and eventually won in 13.
Pittsburgh’s ability to rally has led to several victories at Wrigley Field. Down the stretch, should the Pirates get back into the playoff picture, that could be the difference between making the playoffs or not.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Andrew McCutchen had a poor 2016 but has bounced back nicely in 2017.
It’s become a bright spot in the up-and-down season and it holds true for Pirates’ key to success at Wrigley Field. A year ago, McCutchen slashed .231/.286/.350 at the home of the Cubs. Of McCutchen’s nine hits, only three were extra-base hits and only one of those was a home run. McCutchen’s 10 strikeouts were second only to his 12 at Busch Stadium for his most at any road ballpark last year.
This season, the five-time All-Star has hit .333/.385/.708 at Wrigley Field so far. McCutchen has matched last season’s home run output and also has one strike out in 24 at-bats. He’s collected at least one hit in all six games and scored at least one run in four games.
McCutchen’s improvements have helped the Pirates bust out offensively at Wrigley Field. He’s re-established himself in the middle of the Pirates order and is a big reason for Pittsburgh’s dominance in Chicago.
For all that the Pittsburgh Pirates have struggled to do in 2017, they have found a way to buck their previous struggles at Wrigley Field. Regardless of what happens in their final trip to “The Friendly Confines” this week, the Pirates have guaranteed a winning record there for the first time in three seasons.
To at least take two out of three, the Pirates need strong starting pitching, run production late in games and the hot bat of Andrew McCutchen. If the Pirates get all of that, they will head back to Pittsburgh on Thursday a happy bunch.
Photo by Joy Frank-Collins