The Chicago Cubs have been itching for a postseason place all season long. Thanks to the Pittsburgh Pirates, they’ll have to wait at minimum until the San Francisco Giants lose to the Oakland Athletics Friday night, if they lose, before they clinch that place.
Opening the weekend as hosts to the Pirates the Cubs probably knew it wouldn’t be simple. And Gerrit Cole made sure they didn’t forget that knowledge Friday afternoon. Cole went seven against Jon Lester and came out ahead, surrendering one earned run and punching out eight to Lester’s two earned and six punched out.
The Pirates already clinched their own postseason slot, sitting three games behind the Cardinals in the National League Central and still holding the first NL wild card and a still-reasonable shot at the division crown. Riding a now seven-game game winning streak, the Pirates look pretty meaty despite losing Jung-Ho Kang for the rest of the season.
In fact, there were those who thought the Kang injury was going to mean not just bad blood but nuclear war in Wrigley Field this weekend, especially after Cubs manager Joe Maddon dismissed the seriousness of Kang’s injury.
It happened in Pittsburgh last weekend when Kang was upended by Cubs outfielder Chris Coghlan on a takeout slide. Maddon said after it was over that he thought Kang had plantar fasciitis, the same kind of injury that hobbled Albert Pujols for a couple of his first years with the Angels. Kang turned up with a torn knee and a dead season. The Pirates needed every man on deck from that point forward.
And some wondered whether the Pirates would look for revenge this weekend in the wake of losing Kang, particularly given the debate over whether Coghlan’s slide was harsh but clean or plain dirty. The first part of the answer came Friday and it came the old-fashioned way—a hair’s breadth win for the Pirates.
They let the Cubs know early it wouldn’t be easy. If Kyle Schwarber was going to draw a one-out walk in the bottom of the first, Cole and catcher Francisco Cervelli were going to get out of it with an inning-ending strike-’em-out/throw-’em-out double play.
If the Cubs were going to do no more than just push Coghlan around the bases after his one-out walk in the second—he went to second on a bunt by Addison Russell and to third on a ground out up the pipe by David Ross—Cole and company weren’t going to object to striking out Lester and leaving Coghlan to die at third.
Hell, Cole even put the Pirates on the board in the first place in the third, slashing a one-out single up the pipe to send home Jordy Mercer, who’d gotten aboard hitting Lester’s first pitch to him for a ground rule double.
The Cubs managed to tie it at one when Russell pushed home Kris Bryant (leadoff full-count single to left) on a ground out to shortstop with first and third aboard in the fourth, but Cole managed to keep it that way by swishing Ross for the side.
Cole never let the Cubs take any lead in the game, while the Pirates broke the one-all tie in the seventh with Michael Morse singling home pinch runner Keon Broxton. They got their third run in the eighth when Starling Marte pushed Mercer home on a grounder to shortstop. You’d think the key to this game was putting the shortstops to work.
The Cubs tried getting frisky against Pirates closer Mark Melancon in the ninth, with Chris Donorfia greeting him with a double to right and, a strikeout later, Starlin Castro tripling him home. Melancon went into prompt why-da-noive-o-dem-guys! mode and swished Jorge Soler and Javier Baez for side and game.
And there didn’t seem to be any retaliatory gesture in any Pirate mind all game long.
Which doesn’t mean the rest of the weekend won’t prove interesting. The Cubs get to deal with A.J. Burnett Saturday, Burnett trying to pitch his way to a championship before his intended retirement. But the Pirates get to deal with Jake Arrieta Sunday, Arrieta being nothing except the guy who just might snatch a Cy Young Award from Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, and who’s turned out to be the season ace the Cubs thought they were getting when they signed Lester last winter.
Besides, can you remember the last time the Pirates and the Cubs played each other for anything meaningful in September? It’s been 47 years . . . since the fabled Homer in the Gloamin’—Gabby Hartnett’s darkness-approaching bomb to send the Cubs right past the Pirates into first place in 1938.
The Cubs will be watching the Giants tonight. Bet on it. And if the Giants do them the favour of a loss, the Cubs and the Pirates will spend the rest of this weekend playing each other for some higher stakes, and bloody rare ones at that.