Post-break sweep sends Pirates plunging


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The Cubs' Jason Heyward hits a two-run home run in the fifth inning Sunday in Chicago. - AP

CHICAGO – The brakes weren’t just pumped on the Pirates’ pennant express this weekend. They were slammed.

The Pirates came out of the All-Star break in the worst possible way by getting swept in a three-game series by National League Central-leading Cubs at Wrigley Field. The Cubs put the finishing touch on the series Sunday with an 8-3 win at Wrigley Field.

Going into the break, the Pirates were riding the wave of 12 wins in their previous 17 games. That drew them within 2 1/2 games of Cubs and sparked hopes of the franchise’s first division title since 1992 in an NL Central race in which just 4 1/2 games separated the five teams.

However, the Cubs snapped the Pirates back to reality during three picture-perfect afternoons at Wrigley. Now, the Pirates are 5 1/2 games behind and the deficit feels double that after the Cubs scored 22 runs in the final 21 innings of the series.

The Pirates tried to shrug the sweep off the best they could by opting to look ahead to a three-game series against the Cardinals that starts Monday night in St. Louis. Perhaps they were talking points. It sounded, though, like were whistling in the dark.

“You get ready for the Cardinals,” Clint Hurdle said. “These guys know what’s at stake. They know to prepare, know how to get ready. I think people on the outside emphasize certain things more than those of us on the inside. You move on. That’s what we always do. There are more games to play.”

Trevor Williams played the biggest hand in Sunday’s defeat with one of the worst outings of his four years in the major leagues. The 11 hits allowed in 5 1/3 innings were a career-worst and the eight runs given up tied his career-worst.

Williams talked about his outing:

Williams last pitched July 1. He missed his scheduled start last weekend against the Brewers at PNC Park because he was on paternity leave. The Pirates were then off for four days from Monday-Thursday for the All-Star break.

“Fastball execution wasn’t his friend,” Hurdle said. “He’s going to compete. He’s going to get after it. Overall, though, he’s not getting back to exactly where he wants to. I don’t want to make excuses, but he’s been away and that’s problematic for someone who uses touch and feel when he pitches.”

The touch and feel have been lacking for Williams much of the season as the loss dropped him to 3-3 with a 5.17 ERA in 13 starts. He also missed a little more than a month from May 17-June 18 with a right-side strain.

The Pirates gave Williams a 3-1 lead. After being nicked for one run in the fourth inning, he was tagged for three runs in both the fifth and sixth as the Cubs turned a two-run deficit into a commanding five-run lead.

Williams’ downfall began in the fifth inning when Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo hit back-to-back singles to put runners on first and third with one out. Victor Caratini followed with a sacrifice fly then Jason Heyward hit a long two-run home run off a changeup to right-center field that put the Cubs up good.

Homers on consecutive pitches by pinch-hitter Albert Almora Jr. and Kyle Schwarber sparked the Cubs’ sixth.

Heyward’s home run was his 15th and the Cubs are the only team in the major leagues with six players who have hit at least that many this season.

“It is a good lineup,” Williams said. “They won a world championship (in 2016) with that core and they are playing right now. Kudos to them. They did a good job. They put me in counts where I had to throw pitches they wanted to hit.”

The Pirates scored three runs in third inning, highlighted by Jung Ho Kang’s RBI double, to move in front 3-1. However, that was all they got off Jose Quintana (7-7) and the bullpen.

“We knew the second half with our division was going to be tight,” Williams said. “It’s a tough first series out of the break for us. However, we go to St. Louis and we’ll go from them. We’ve gone on some great runs in previous seasons and this season. Once we get going again, we’re going to be fine.”

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