CHICAGO — The Pittsburgh Pirates started the season as hot as anyone in the National League and so far are flawless on the road.
But if the strong run out of the gate is to continue, it will have to come at the expense of the two-time defending NL Central champion Chicago Cubs, who are predicted to make a run for a third straight division title this season.
The Pirates (7-2) will enter Monday’s series opener fresh off a 5-0 victory over the Cincinnati Reds in which Jameson Taillon allowed just one hit and struck out seven. The complete-game mastery was Pittsburgh’s first since Ivan Nova — who will pitch Monday against the Cubs — shut out the Marlins last April.
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Now, Nova will look to extend the Pirates’ torrid start in the first of a three-game series at Wrigley Field, where Pittsburgh finished 4-5 last season.
But if the Pirates are going to get off on the right foot in Chicago this season, they will need more solid pitching efforts like the one they got from their ace on Sunday.
Taillon became the first Pittsburgh starter this season to work at least into the seventh inning.
“He led the way today and he showed the other guys in that rotation,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle told reporters after Sunday’s victory. “(Taillon) gave them a nice blueprint to follow moving forward.”
The Cubs enter Monday’s home opener having won three of their past four games after Sunday’s 3-0 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers.
Chicago (5-4) has struggled at times to produce offensively but scored 20 runs in the four-game series against the Brewers. Much of the scoring output has come with All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo out of the lineup with a back injury.
Rizzo, who has missed three straight games, told reporters on Sunday he wants to play in the Cubs’ Wrigley debut but that he has to consider the long term. As of Sunday, he was considered doubtful for Monday’s series opener against the Pirates.
“You want to be smart,” Rizzo told reporters, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. “You can’t play (Monday) and set myself back 10 days, or five or six days.”
Rizzo experienced tightness in his back on Friday, which forced him to miss the weekend.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon told reporters he would rather sit Rizzo on Monday with an off day coming Tuesday than to make matters worse.
Expected cold temperatures Monday in Chicago could reek havoc on Rizzo’s back stiffness, but temperatures are expected to rise throughout the week.
Nine games into the season, Maddon isn’t ready to take any chances.
“Anytime you’re dealing with a back, obviously you never know,” Maddon said, according to the Sun-Times. “I’m OK if it’s not (Monday), just because we have the off day and then it really gives him a full opportunity to rest it.”
Tyler Chatwood (0-1, 1.50 ERA) will make his second start of the season and his Wrigley Field debut for the Cubs. Chatwood allowed one earned run, four hits and six walks in six innings in his first start against Cincinnati while striking out four. Chatwood is 0-0 in two career starts against Pittsburgh with a 1.50 ERA.
Nova (0-1, 6.10) will make his third start of the season for the Pirates. He surrendered five runs in 5 1/3 innings in his last start against the Minnesota Twins when he struck out three and walked one. Nova is 2-1 in four career starts against the Cubs.