As far as baseball rivalries go, a handful come to mind as the true rivalries in the sport — with the Yankees and Red Sox, Giants and Dodgers, and Cubs and Cardinals at the forefront. And while the rivalry between the Cubs and Cardinals has been tense at times, there is a bigger rivalry slowly developing in the NL Central between the Cubs and Pirates.
This season, as the Cardinals hover around .500, struggling with pitching and an aging roster and looking like they could be in trouble, Chicago’s focus has shifted to the young, talented Pirates. The Cubs are 16-9 against Pittsburgh since the beginning of the 2015 season, and that’s not counting the 1-0 record in the playoffs.
Both the Cubs and Pirates have experienced angst concerning their matchup, but Pittsburgh has experienced it more. Everyone remembers the Cubs’ 97-win season and run to get to the NLCS, followed by their strong offseason as they brought in John Lackey, Ben Zobrist, and Jason Heyward. But many overlook the fact that the Pirates had an even better stretch than the Cubs last year.
After starting going 18-22, the Pirates went on an 80-42 run the rest of the way — good for the best record in baseball over that time span. But the system for seeding the playoffs, which some might argue is broken, forced the Pirates into a one-game Wild Card playoff, due to the Cardinals’ 100-62 record blocking them in their division.
What’s even worse than having to play a winner-take-all game to get into the playoffs when you had the second-best record in baseball? Having to play the team with the third-best record in the game. The Cubs and Pirates faced off, with Chicago shutting down Pittsburgh 4-0 and moving on to play the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS.
The NL Wild Card game brought out some frustrations from the Pirates’ perspective. Cubs inhuman-ace Jake Arrieta shut them down (eventually tossing one of his finest overall games in his big-league career) and an early deficit led Pirates manager Clint Hurdle to pull infielder Sean Rodriguez from the game in favor of Pedro Alvarez’s home run potential.
This contributed to one of the most unfortunate, memorable moments of the game. In the top of the seventh inning, Arrieta was drilled with a pitch from Tony Watson — and it looked intentional. The benches and bullpen cleared, but sanity was restored and the Cubs finished off the Pirates. However, Rodriguez didn’t take well to the whole thing and swung at Cubs catcher David Ross, eventually going all Mike Tyson’s Punchout!! on the water cooler in the dugout.
The Pirates have done everything they can to diminish the Cubs this season, although their actions against Chicago has been lackluster. In early April, the Cubs and Pirates faced off in Pittsburgh — where tensions mounted yet again over some hit batters — before taking the first two at Wrigley Field last week.
Gerrit Cole, the loser of the Wild Card matchup, tossed eight shutout innings against the Cubs in the final game of the set to win 2-1 and avoid the second consecutive sweep. After the game, Cole threw some shade at the Cubs — who had an MLB best 27-9 record at the time — saying, “Like I said, I just think it was an opportunity to try to salvage the series. I don’t really think they’re the best team in baseball.”
As of now, the Pirates sit 6.5 games behind the Cubs in the NL Central and just 1.5 games ahead of the lackluster Cardinals. They’ll have 13 more head-to-head games with Chicago this season to prove that they’re not just an afterthought in the division. Four of those contests will come in the final week of the season in Pittsburgh, with strong odds that those games could mean something for both sides.
For the Cubs, their natural rival will always be the St. Louis Cardinals. But right now, one of the best blossoming rivalries in the game is the building animosity between the Cubs and Pirates.
Follow Ryan on Twitter @RyanDavisBP
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.