PITTSBURGH — If he'd been in his usual spot at third base, Kris Bryant's response to a sharply hit ball his way would have been instinctual. Starting in center field for the first time in his professional career on Thursday while regular Dexter Fowler rested a sore groin, the Chicago Cubs rookie wasn't quite sure what to do when Pittsburgh's Josh Harrison hit a tailing fly to left-center with one out in a tie game.
Bryant's roundabout path to the ball in the seventh inning helped Harrison scoot to second. Two batters later Harrison sprinted home with the go-ahead run in a 5-4 Pittsburgh victory. Manager Joe Maddon wasn't exactly ready to blame Bryant for not aggressively attacking a slicing shot in blustery conditions.
"It took a left turn on him," Maddon said. "It was like a drawn 2-iron. It just hooked left. He had no chance at that."
Bryant went 0 for 3 with an RBI to "drop" his batting average to .360 — still pretty good for a guy who's been in the majors all of a week. Chris Denorfia and Starlin Castro each had two hits for the Cubs. Rookie second baseman Addison Russell doubled in a run for the first RBI of his career.
To be fair, Chicago's problem at the end of a four-game series with the Pirate wasn't Bryant but a bullpen that couldn't preserve a three-run lead.
Brian Schlitter (0-2) gave up the double to Harrison with one out in the seventh. Left-hander Phil Coke came in and intentionally walked pinch hitter Corey Hart to take his chance against left-handed Gregory Polanco. Coke quickly jumped ahead two strikes before Polanco worked the count full then patiently slapped a single to left to easily score Harrison.
"It was the battle at bat we needed today," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "We had a bunch of them."
The Cubs touched Pittsburgh starter Jeff Locke for four runs in five innings but missed a chance to break the game open when Castro hit into a double play in the fifth. Chicago managed just one hit the rest of the way as Pittsburgh rallied.
"We probably took the first two games away from them," Maddon said. "They took the last two away from us. That's how this division is going to play this year."
Maddon didn't want to lump a shabby outing by the bullpen entirely on the relievers. He's a little concerned about the inability for his starters to get into the seventh and eighth innings consistently. Chicago's ERA climbed to 4.00 with the loss, 12th in the 15-team National League.
"We've got to get our starters deeper into the game," Maddon said. "That was part of what I was looking for today obviously. When (Hendricks) was right around 90 pitches it did not look like he was going to get better. Jack has been pitching well so we wanted to give him the opportunity to go out there and really gain some confidence. It just didn't play today."
Cubs: 2B Javier Baez was scheduled to report to the team's spring training complex in Mesa, Arizona, on Thursday. Baez has been on bereavement leave the last two weeks after the death of sister Noely on April 8.
Pirates: CF Andrew McCutchen didn't start on a scheduled day off before the start of a lengthy road trip. The plan was modified a bit when he struck out as a pinch hitter in the sixth. McCutchen is dealing with an achy left knee that the team will monitor. The 2013 NL MVP admitted he's not quite 100 percent but believes the pain is manageable. Hurdle said the team will look for chances to give McCutchen a break when possible.
Cubs: The jewel of Chicago's spending spree over the winter will go for his first victory of the season when Jon Lester (0-2, 6.89) makes his fourth start as the Cubs begin a weekend series Friday night in Cincinnati. Lester gave up six runs on 10 hits in a no-decision against the Reds on April 13.
Pirates: Pittsburgh starts a nine-game road trip through Arizona, Chicago and St. Louis on Friday against the Diamondbacks. Gerrit Cole (2-0, 2.65 ERA) makes his first career start at Chase Field on Friday.
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