Friday, September 25, 2015

Will Pirates-Cubs finally boil over?

Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, 10:00 p.m.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon’s seemingly flippant postgame comment about Jung-Ho Kang’s season-ending knee injury eight days ago did not sit well in some sectors of the Pirates organization, columnist Joe Starkey says. And it only adds fuel to what could be an incendiary three-game series between the teams this weekend. (AP)

As they head into what could be an incendiary three-game series at Wrigley Field, fresh off the Jung Ho Kang incident and bracing for a one-game death match Oct. 7, the Pirates and Chicago Cubs should be forgiven if they don't quite know how to act.

It is, after all, rare for these teams to be pitted against each other in high-stakes games.

How rare?

The two have not finished with winning records in the same season since 1972.

So this is sort of new. It's also sort of remarkable that franchises paired in the same division (sometimes defined as a one-division league) since 1887 have produced so few shared memories.

Think about it: The teams have played 2,236 times, each counting only the St. Louis Cardinals as a more-frequent opponent, and yet, honestly, how many indelible Cubs-Pirates moments come to mind?

Individual snapshots emerge: Rennie Stennett's 7-for-7 performance; Neil Walker's Opening Day home runs; Michael McKenry's blast off Carlos Marmol; Rob Mackowiak's dramatic home runs at both ends of a 2004 doubleheader the day his first child was born.

There was the 5-hour, 55-minute marathon early last season (longest game, time-wise, in Pirates history) and of course the Pirates in Chicago snapping their 20-year playoff drought (McCutchen-to-Morneau-to-Martin).

But those are Pirates-centric memories. The Cubs mostly were innocent bystanders.

History buffs might cite the “Homer in the Gloamin,” Gabby Hartnett's famous into-the-Wrigley-darkness walk-off shot on Sept. 28, 1938 (just before Aramis Ramirez broke into the league). The blast vaulted the Cubs past the Pirates into first place in the National League. That was one of the rare years the teams were battling each other for something meaningful in September.
This is another one.

And it's getting serious.

It was only eight days ago that Chicago's Chris Coghlan mangled Kang's left leg on a questionable slide. The Pirates did not retaliate in-game, but that was before Cubs manager Joe Maddon offered this weird postgame comment regarding Kang's injury: “I don't think it's his knee. He has plantar fasciitis is what I heard.”


Everybody saw Kang's knee buckle in grotesque fashion. His injury clearly was not related to a chronic foot condition, so why pass along such an idiotic piece of information even if you “heard” it?

Maddon has since insisted he was not being flippant. OK. If that's the case, then he was relaying information about an opponent's serious injury, and that is the other team's job. Not his.

Rest assured, neither the slide nor the Maddon quote sat well in some sectors of the Pirates organization.
The Trib's Rob Biertempfel quoted a person in the Pirates clubhouse, who did not want to be identified, as saying Coghlan separated his legs “like a hockey kick (save)” and whipped his leg into Kang.

Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer told Biertempfel, “I don't think (Coghlan) meant to hurt the guy, but I think there are different ways you can go about it and still break up a double play.”

Pirates broadcaster Greg Brown, on my radio show Tuesday, said the following: “I'm really going to be fascinated to see what happens on Friday. Do the Pirates feel the need to do something (to avenge Kang)? I've heard all sides of it, from on-field personnel to off-field people. It's fascinating. There's going to be kind of a bitterness to this series.”

Of the Maddon quote, Brown said, “There are some people within that (Pirates) clubhouse (with whom) that does not sit well.”

Losing the popular Kang has stirred the Pirates' fan base. Anecdotally, I get the feeling the Cubs are fast gaining and maybe surpassing the Cardinals as enemy No. 1.

Adding fuel to the inferno is that fiery Pirates ace Gerrit Cole gets the ball in the opener while highly flammable A.J. Burnett is scheduled to go against Jake Arrieta on Sunday.

Arrieta, in the midst of the greatest second half in pitching history, looms as the Pirates' potential executioner in the wild-card game. With the division a long shot, the Pirates and Cubs will be angling toward home-field advantage. Just as importantly, they will be looking to set the tone for what could be their first postseason meeting.

It's been 43 years since these teams were good together.

Might be worth the wait.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at

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