MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Pirates won't concede anything to Cubs

Despite early deficit in NL Central, Pittsburgh believes it can catch Chicago

Pirates won't concede anything to Cubs

CHICAGO -- Kris Bryant and Addison Russell, among others, struck on Friday. The specter of Jake Arrieta lurks on Saturday.

Could be a tough weekend for the Pirates.

Not that Clint Hurdle will let you know he's worried.

Hurdle knows what everyone is thinking -- that the Cubs have left the Pirates and the Cardinals behind in the National League Central, left to fight for one of the NL's Wild Card spots. But he's not drawing any conclusions before Memorial Day, even if the Cubs have won six games in a row over the Pirates, including Arrieta's shutout in the NL Wild Card Game last October.

Hurdle felt no reason to speak to his players before this series. He believes they know the situation as well as he does.

"Sometimes we don't give players enough credit,'' Hurdle said before the Cubs' 9-4 victory on Friday. "They've got most of that figured out on their own. They've been doing this for most of their lifetimes. This isn't the first time they've run into stiff competition on any level.''

Baseball seasons aren't predictable, like the tides. They ebb and flow without set schedules, almost always leaving teams in choppy waters at some point. That's the beauty of the exercise.

Ross' three-run homer

"[Players] know the season's 162 games long, and they've all possibly been on clubs that got off to good starts and maybe not finished that way,'' Hurdle said. "It's like everything else that we talk about. We remind them periodically; it's not like we remind them when we play the Cubs. Honor everything, respect everything and fear nothing.''

Hurdle paused to repeat himself.

"Respect everything; fear nothing,'' he said. "Go out there and play today. I look forward to it. A weekend series at Wrigley, it's special.''

By taking a 25-8 record into the series, the Cubs entered the weekend with a seven-game cushion over the Pirates and Cardinals, who combined to win 198 games last season. They have inspired talk about their chance to take a run at the all-time record of 116 wins, putting together a .732 winning percentage since July 29, 2015 (71-26).

"They've watched the tape,'' Hurdle said. "We've prepared for them like we do every team. We know there are holes. The Padres just showed us some more.''

Hurdle was referring to Wednesday's split doubleheader at Wrigley Field, when the Padres rode a Brett Wallace homer off Pedro Strop and a four-hit shutout by Drew Pomeranz and the bullpen to a sweep of the Cubs.

That ended the Cubs' hold on the claim of not losing back-to-back games. But based on the way Joe Maddon's team pounded Francisco Liriano, it does not appear to have created any lasting issues.

Russell's three-run homer

Liriano had pretty much owned the Cubs (5-1, 1.90 in 10 career starts), especially at Wrigley Field (4-1, 1.56 in five starts). But this time he got jumped.

The Cubs strung together seven hits, including homers by Russell, Bryant and David Ross, in a span of 13 hitters in the fourth and fifth innings. Liriano was charged with eight earned runs, making this his worst start since the Rockies got to him for 10 earned runs in 2013.

The Pirates would love to turn the tables on Arrieta.

He'll be facing Pittsburgh for the sixth time since last August, and has gone 4-0 with an 0.24 ERA in the previous five games. They've scored on him in only one of those games, and his five-hit shutout in the Wild Card Game included 11 strikeouts and no walks.

That's as dominant as a run of pitching gets.

"Quality strikes,'' Hurdle said when asked what has set Arrieta apart. "Quality strikes. Not just throwing strikes. He throws quality strikes. He dots the mitt. He hits spots. He shaves. He shreds. The overall command has been elite. That's why the numbers are elite.''

The Pirates haven't forgotten that Arrieta hit Francisco Cervelli and Josh Harrison with pitches in that Wild Card Game, before Tony Watson plunked Arrieta. But they're looking for something more than momentary retaliation. They're looking to restore the old order, when the Cubs were looking up at them in the standings.

Neutralizing Arrieta would be a start. If they can't do that, the gap seems likely to just keep getting wider.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.