PITTSBURGH – Anthony Rizzo’s seventh home run of the season gave the Cubs an early lead Monday afternoon. His two-run single in the ninth put the finishing touches on a 7-0 romp over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
It’s what happened in between that could have a carry-over effect for the National League Central rivals.
Rizzo slid hard into Pittsburgh catcher Elias Diaz while being forced out at home in the eighth inning, taking out Diaz’s legs and forcing a wild throw into right field. That allowed two runs to score and left both sides wondering what does – and doesn’t – constitute a legal slide in modern-day Major League Baseball.
Rizzo claimed he “wasn’t trying to hurt anyone” when he went leg-first into Diaz, who already had touched home plate for the force out and was a step in front of the base when the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Rizzo undercut him.
“Plays like that are scary, but at the same time, you have to play hard,” Rizzo said. “It’s 100 percent in the rules.”
Cubs manager Joe Maddon agreed, calling it a “perfect play” while chastising officials for not doing a proper job educating fans on the rules.
“The fans’ reaction to [Rizzo] the next time he came up indicates that they think he did something wrong,” Maddon said. “And that’s what’s so wrong about all of that. Different plays where the player has not done anything wrong, but because of new rules, it makes him wear the black hat for the moment.”
The call stood after video review, a sequence that ended with Pirates manager Clint Hurdle getting ejected when he came out to argue the decision.
“Our catcher, he makes the play just like he’s supposed to make, and he gets wiped out with a hard baseball slide,” Hurdle said. “There’s potential injury, and I don’t see the rule fitting the means there. If it’s open season, it’s open season. Everybody is going to see the play and knows this is a play you can make on every catcher in his most vulnerable position. He’s completely exposed.”
Diaz remained in the game after being tended to by trainers and said Rizzo apologized before his at-bat in the ninth inning.
“When I saw the replay, I was like ‘Man, this guy could have ended my career right here,’” Diaz said. “I understand they called it a legal slide, but out of what I’ve been trained and what I’ve been told, that was not a legal slide.”
Diaz, starting for the second straight day while Francisco Cervelli dealt with flu-like symptoms, acknowledged he was in some pain but never was close to being removed as a precaution.
“For me to come out of that game, he needed to break my leg,” Diaz said.
The play overshadowed a dominant performance by spot starter Mike Montgomery. Filling in for injured Yu Darvish, Montgomery (1-1) retired the first 13 batters and allowed only a pair of singles over 52/3 innings, striking out five without a walk.
The Cubs arrived in Pittsburgh at 4 a.m. local time after a victory over San Francisco at Wrigley Field on Sunday night. Maddon wondered openly before the first pitch why the start time wasn’t pushed until later in the day, but the well-rested Montgomery, who has worked exclusively in the bullpen this season, was more than ready to go.
“Obviously, last night with the travel, the bullpen needed as much help as they could get,” Montgomery said. “I know that. I was kind of doing it for those guys. Give those guys some rest.”
Pittsburgh managed to get the ball out of the infield five times with Montgomery on the mound, four harmless fly outs and a single by Corey Dickerson with one out in the fifth. Then David Freese hit into a double play.
Chad Kuhl (4-3) gave up only Rizzo’s solo shot to right field in the first, but fell to 1-5 against the Cubs. Addison Russell’s pinch-hit two-run home run off reliever Steven Brault in the seventh gave the Cubs a 3-0 lead as they poured it on late. The Pirates fell to 2-8 in their past 10 games.
“Offensively we’ve missed some opportunities,” Hurdle said. “Not a lot of opportunities today. But we’ve had a lot of opportunities in the other games. So we continue to create opportunities. We’re just not finishing off things.”
COMING AND GOING
The Cubs recalled right-hander Luke Farrell from Triple-A Iowa and optioned Justin Hancock to the minors.
Freese and Pirates third base coach Joey Cora had to be separated in the dugout late in the game. Hurdle said he wasn’t aware of the confrontation, but that the team would take care of it “in house.”
Cubs: Utility player Ian Happ pinch-hit in the seventh inning, his first appearance since exiting Saturday’s loss to San Francisco with right shoulder soreness after making a diving stop.
Pirates: They shut down closer Felipe Vazquez for the day as a precaution. Vazquez complained of discomfort in his left forearm after blowing a third consecutive save opportunity in a loss to St. Louis on Sunday. Director of sports medicine Todd Tomczyk said tests done after the game did not find any structural damage.
Cubs: Jon Lester (4-2, 2.37 ERA) will make his 14th career start against the Pirates. Lester is 5-5 with a 3.50 ERA when facing Pittsburgh.
Pirates: Rookie Nick Kingham (2-1, 3.44 ERA) will make his fourth career start on Tuesday. Kingham is filling in for Ivan Nova, who was placed on the 10-day disabled list Monday with a sprained ring finger on his right (throwing) hand.