Winning close games over the Cubs has become an overused storyline for the Pirates already this season. Although that pattern once again held true in their 2-0 victory in front of 37,391 at Wrigley Field, Wednesday was all about Lincoln.
After a string of four average starts, Lincoln dazzled in his fifth. His performance lifted the Pirates to a fourth series win over Chicago, and it earned the right-hander a game ball as a memento from his first Major League win.
"It's something that I've been wanting since I've been here," Lincoln said of the milestone victory. "It gets that monkey off my back. Now I can just go out there and relax, and be who I am, and not have to worry about anything that goes on around me. I can be myself and attack hitters."
The irony in that last statement is that Lincoln's success on Wednesday was built on exactly that. Knowing that the wind was gusting in, Lincoln showed no hesitancy challenging Chicago's scuffling offense.
This time, Lincoln, not his opponent, dictated what he threw. By being in and around the strike zone, Lincoln had the Cubs swinging early in counts. That aided his efficiency and allowed him to comfortably finish seven innings for the first time in his career.
"That's what he's capable of doing," manager John Russell said. "He's been building to this start. He's starting to trust what he can do. He's gotten into that good rhythm now where he believes in what he's doing. I knew it was coming."
A particularly filthy curveball highlighted Lincoln's breakthrough start. Of the career-high six batters he struck out, five of them went down on a third-strike curveball. That included pinch-hitter Tyler Colvin in a key spot in the fifth.
Colvin presented Chicago with its best scoring opportunity when, with two outs, he came up with a pair of runners in scoring position. Lincoln got Colvin to swing through two nearly identically placed curves to get ahead. Colvin managed to work the count full, but Lincoln continued to lean on his curve. Colvin swung through it for a third time, and Lincoln let up a fist pump as he headed toward the dugout.
"We had a base open, so we were going to pitch carefully to him," Lincoln said. "He was swinging at balls out of the zone, and we just kept attacking him with that pitch. It worked out for us."
Outside of the fifth, Lincoln labored only minimally. Alfonso Soriano drilled a ball to deep left that likely would have cleared the wall had the wind not been blowing in. In the end, Chicago finished with only four hits off Pittsburgh's rookie starter.
"I felt like it was going to be my day," Lincoln said. "For the most part, I've realized that I can still attack the zone at this level and get away with some stuff. That's what I did today. The wind helped me a little bit today, but I felt I was my strongest today."
Still, as Lincoln continued to roll, his first career win was no sure thing until Pittsburgh's offense finally broke through in the eighth. The game was scoreless up to that point, but the Pirates got the break they needed when Aramis Ramirez's one-out error allowed Andy LaRoche to reach first.
Andrew McCutchen moved up LaRoche with a single. Garrett Jones then put the Pirates ahead with an RBI double off the wall in left-center.
"I was just pumped up," Jones said afterward. "Lincoln was pitching a great game, and it was just a pitchers' battle."
"We were waiting on that big hit," Russell added.
When Pedro Alvarez struck out with the bases loaded, it looked as if the Pirates might squander a chance to tack on an insurance run. A seven-pitch battle between Cubs reliever Sean Marshall and Lastings Milledge, however, led to a walk that forced McCutchen home.
"He's a good pitcher that doesn't give in," Milledge said of Marshall. "Everybody knows he has a good cut fastball, but I was able to put in a good at-bat and lay off his best pitches."
The two-run frame came just in time to give the win to Lincoln, who was relieved by Joel Hanrahan in the eighth. Hanrahan struck out two in a 1-2-3 inning. Octavio Dotel then picked up his 16th save of the season to seal Pittsburgh's first shutout since May 8. Seven of Dotel's saves this year have come against the Cubs.
"We've pitched well against them," Russell said. "They are a good club. We've played them tough. We've found a way to win against these guys."
The Pirates have now won nine of the 12 games played between the division foes.
"It's just one of those things that just happens," said Cubs starter Tom Gorzelanny, who tossed five scoreless innings Wednesday. "I know we're a better team than they are. It's one of those things where it's not working. They've had our number this year. It's hard. It's hard to see that every time. We've just got to find a way."
All but three of the games between these two clubs have been decided by two or fewer runs. That is part of a larger trend for the Pirates, who have now taken 21 of their 27 season wins by that margin. No other team in the Majors holds a bigger percentage of wins by two or fewer runs than Pittsburgh.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less