PITTSBURGH -- For the second time this season, Gerrit Cole was at his absolute best against the Cubs at PNC Park. And for the second time this season, the Cubs won anyway. After Cole threw eight shutout innings, catcher Alex Avila ripped an RBI triple off Daniel Hudson in the ninth to give the Cubs a 1-0 win on Wednesday night.
Cole struck out eight and allowed only two hits, both singles. It was his best start of the season, with the closest competition being an April 25 outing at home, also a 1-0 decision, in which the Cubs scored an unearned run during his seven masterful innings.
"Cole pretty much had no-hit stuff today," Avila said. "The way he was locating with 97 (mph fastballs), slider, curveball, changeup, he was excellent. You just had a feeling we weren't gonna have too many opportunities against him. And if he made a mistake, we weren't able to capitalize on it. He had unbelievable stuff. It was like, try to outlast him, keep the game where it was until we got to their bullpen."
With St. Louis winning and Milwaukee losing on Wednesday, the Cubs now have a four-game lead on the Cardinals and a 4 1/2-game lead on the Brewers in the National League Central race.
Cole owns a 2.50 ERA in 14 regular-season starts against the Cubs. In three starts against the NL Central leaders this year, Cole has allowed three runs (two earned) on 10 hits while striking out 21 in 21 innings. Is there something about the Cubs that brings out the best in him?
"I don't know. I feel like I've been throwing the ball pretty well lately," said Cole, who has completed at least six innings in 15 of his last 16 starts. "I just wanted to continue doing that. I thought [catcher Chris Stewart] did a really good job of reading swings tonight, was on top of their approach, really commanded the game from behind the dish."
But the Pirates couldn't support their ace, leaving the door open for the Cubs to rally in the ninth. They are being careful down the stretch with closer Felipe Rivero, who has made 66 appearances this season, so they decided only to use him in a potential save situation. Anthony Rizzo drew a one-out walk off Hudson. He was replaced by pinch-runner Leonys Martin, who promptly stole second. Martin dashed home as Avila's broken-bat line drive rattled around the right-field corner for his first triple since 2013.
Cubs left-hander Jose Quintana picked up where he left off in his last start against the Pirates, striking out six and allowing only six singles over six scoreless innings. Quintana struck out nine over six innings when he last faced Pittsburgh at Wrigley Field, but he had plenty of help that night: The Cubs put up 17 runs in a blowout victory. Quintana twice had to work his way out of trouble to keep the Bucs at bay.
"It was just a tough ballgame," Cole said. "We lined out so many times tonight. It's just unfortunate."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Get up for it:Kris Bryant single-handedly kept a run off the board in the fourth inning. David Freese walked and Jose Osuna singled to put two runners on with one out. Quintana struck out Sean Rodriguez, then Jordy Mercer stung a 100.7-mph line drive toward left field. The 6-foot-5 Bryant wouldn't have it, however, leaping to rob Mercer and end the inning. According to Statcast™, the ball had an 83 percent hit probability.
"Jordy barreled that ball," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "The tallest third baseman in the league was able to get up, get some air and glove it."
In the fight: The Pirates had Quintana on the ropes in the sixth inning, when Andrew McCutchen and Freese singled and began to run up the lefty's pitch count. Osuna continued that work, fouling off five pitches in a 10-pitch at-bat against Quintana. But Osuna's tough at-bat yielded the worst possible outcome, a hard-hit grounder to shortstop Javier Baez. McCutchen was forced out at third base, and Bryant connected with second baseman Tommy La Stella to complete the double play. Quintana recorded the final out of the inning on his next pitch.
"What a great battle, fighting off pitches, and Quintana keeps throwing strikes. For Baez to have the wherewithal to go to third, then to second, how that played out, yeah, some tough luck," Hurdle said. "You can run into that from time to time. The sixth inning could have been a turning point for us in a better direction."
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
Cole's NL Central success hasn't been limited to the Cubs. The right-hander has posted a 2.22 ERA in 13 starts within the division this year.
Over the last five games, the Pirates' starting rotation has allowed three runs -- all scored against Steven Brault on Tuesday -- over 33 innings.
Cubs closer Wade Davis converted his 29th consecutive save opportunity in the ninth inning, helping Pedro Strop earn the win after pitching a hitless eighth in Chicago's sixth shutout this season.
UPON FURTHER REVIEW
In the second inning, Cubs rookie Ian Happ hit a foul ball down the right-field line and into the seats. Umpires asked for a replay review to determine whether the ball was fair and, thus, a home run. The foul call on the field was confirmed.
WHAT'S NEXT Cubs: Left-hander Jon Lester came off the disabled list (shoulder fatigue) Saturday and gave up three home runs in five innings. Lester, who has a 5.32 ERA in his last 17 starts, will try to get on track when the Cubs close their four-game series with the Pirates at PNC Park on Thursday, with first pitch set for 6:05 p.m. CT.
Pirates:Jameson Taillon gets the ball for the Pirates at 7:05 p.m. ET. After a rough stretch in the second half, Taillon fired six scoreless innings in his last start. Taillon has a 2-2 record and a 3.68 ERA in four career starts against the Cubs.