Carlos Villanueva hit his pitch limit after four innings, and turned things over to the Cubs bullpen.
That reads like a recipe for disaster for the 2013 Cubs, a team victimized by a lack of bullpen depth. But on Sunday, against the first-place Pirates, the Cubs' bullpen held together -- until one of its best members gave up the lead. Still, the Cubs overcame that blip to win, 4-3, in 11 innings in front of 33,146.
With two outs in the ninth and a 3-2 count, closer Kevin Gregg served up a game-tying home run to Pittsburgh's Starling Marte.
But Dioner Navarro's walk-off sacrifice fly netted the Cubs their first series victory over a team with a winning record since mid-May. Even with Gregg's blown save, the Cubs' bullpen allowed just two runs in seven innings of work.
"Not what the doctor ordered, another two-strike homer on bullpen day," manager Dale Sveum laughed. "But they did a great job … to give up two in seven innings is doing a great job."
It was a win that seemed improbable in the fifth and sixth innings, when Pittsburgh had plenty of scoring chances against the Cubs' volatile bullpen.
Pittsburgh tied the game in the fifth off Hector Rondon on Jose Tabata's RBI double, but he was stranded at second to end the inning. In the sixth, Pittsburgh got its first two hitters on base, but the scoring threat was squelched when Brandon Inge bunted and Pedro Alvarez was thrown out at home plate trying to score on a ground ball off the bat of Jordy Mercer.
Rondon and newly-acquired right-hander Pedro Strop held Pittsburgh at bay in the sixth, and then Strop, James Russell and Blake Parker for the next two innings. Matt Guerrier threw a pair of scoreless innings in extras to help set up Navarro's walk-off, which came with the bases loaded.
"We're playing the best team in the National League, with the best record," Sveum said. "Come off a 1-0 loss like we did (Friday), and win two out of three, it was nice beating the best in baseball, basically. Holding them down, pitching did a good job and the bullpen, got some timely hits, caught the ball and did a good job."
Villanueva allowed one run on three hits with five strikeouts in four innings. He was limited to 75 pitches in his first start since May 14, as the right-hander hadn't been fully stretched out as a starter following the trade of Scott Feldman last week.
Villanueva was moved to the bullpen when Matt Garza returned to the Cubs' rotation, although he knew a return to the rotation could happen when the front office began shipping players off for prospects.
"I guess we've all known from Day One this year that stuff might happen," Villanueva said. "Even I could get moved. There are some untouchables, but being around this business for a while now, you know how it is."
The Feldman deal won't be the last one made by the Cubs between now and the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline, and those future trades may create more roster headaches like the one Sunday.
But the Cubs pushed through it, and have won seven of their last 11 games. The team has a -10 run differential, which in theory indicates they're better than their 38-48 record. In a radio interview with David Kaplan on Friday, general manager Jed Hoyer said that was somewhat of an overrated stat, pointing specifically to the team's bullpen issues.
On Sunday, those bullpen issues were muted. The scenario wasn't ideal, but that's the nature of games for a team that's in sell mode.
Still, the Cubs pushed through for a win -- backing the team's feeling that, yes, they are better than their record indicates.
"Sometimes, it's something that you have to say just because you're not going to be negative out there," Villanueva explained of that sentiment. "But we really do believe that, and you look up and down -- we've lost some heartbreaking close games. You at least take back half those games and we're in a better position."