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Cubs 4, Pirates 3: All's Well That Ends Well

The Cubs blew a game with two out in the ninth inning. You've heard this before... but this time, it has a happier ending.

David Banks

The way I look at it, we got an hour of free baseball Sunday afternoon before the Cubs beat the Pirates 4-3 in 11 innings, winning the series (the fourth win in their last five series, now 9-6 in their last 15 games).

But can't you see the scene? Kevin Gregg strikes out the first two batters he faces in the top of the ninth with a one-run lead. He's one strike away from nailing down his 16th save. Scouts from the Dodgers, Orioles, Braves, Tigers, who knows how many other teams are clacking away on their laptops or iPads, ready to call their GMs and recommend dealing for him.

Then Starling Marte slams the eighth pitch of the at-bat into the left-center field bleachers, tying the game at 3. Scene: Scouts from the Dodgers, Orioles, Braves, Tigers, who knows how many other teams pack up their equipment and start filing out of Wrigley Field.

Gregg blew the save, but the Cubs took advantage of a rare throwing error by Russell Martin, usually one of the best defensive catchers in the game. After Anthony Rizzo and Alfonso Soriano led off the 11th with singles, both in front of outfielders playing near the warning track in a "no-doubles" defense, it looked like Rizzo had strayed a bit too far from second base. Martin fired a throw to second, but it bounced into center field and the runners advanced. After a rather lengthy Pirates mound conference, Luis Valbuena was intentionally walked to load the bases with nobody out.

Now how many times have you seen a Cubs team blow a chance like that?

This time, they didn't. Dioner Navarro, batting for Matt Guerrier, lofted a fly ball deep enough to right field to score Rizzo and the Cubs had a walkoff win, improving their record in one-run games to 11-19, their overall run differential to -10 (comparison point: the Nationals, also with a -10 run differential, are 46-42) and, for once, a blown save didn't cost the team a game.

Except for the Marte home run, the Cubs bullpen did excellent work Sunday afternoon, and they needed to, with Carlos Villanueva on an approximate 70-pitch limit in his first start after moving back into the rotation. Villanueva was at 69 pitches after four innings and you could tell he was starting to run out of gas, so it was the right move to lift him then. The pen then combined for seven innings, giving up six hits and one run. Dale Sveum even made the right move taking out James Russell for Blake Parker in the eighth; normally, I wouldn't use Russell as a LOOGY, but that's what he was today, facing two batters and retiring one of them. (He'd have been a LOTGY -- "Left-Handed Two-Out Guy" -- if he'd been able to get Pedro Alvarez. Parker got the two right-handed hitters he faced in the eighth on popups.

Speaking of which, the game could have ended in the ninth with a Gregg save if Rizzo had caught what appeared to be a playable foul pop-up by Marte. I'll let that one go because ... all's well that ends well, right? That was also the case in the 10th inning, when Darwin Barney committed his first error of the season on what looked like a routine grounder to ... well, short right field into an extreme shift on Garrett Jones. Jones was erased on a double play hit into by Alvarez, one of three DP's the Cubs turned Sunday.

If Rizzo makes the ninth-inning play and the game ends there, Scott Hairston would have been Sunday's hero, with his pinch-homer in the bottom of the seventh. I've been down on Hairston this year, but he does now have eight home runs, giving him a weird batting line that includes a .172 BA, but a .434 SLG. Hairston might be of some use to an American League team as a platoon DH; if he has a good July, maybe the Cubs can get out from under his contract (and I still would like to see the Cubs take a flyer on Jeff Francoeur, who can hit LHP and is a much better outfielder than Hairston).

So the Cubs are in a nice stretch of play, as noted, since the Cardinals series they have won nine of 15, and with a little better bullpen work could have won at least two or three more in that time. The Pirates have been a very good team this season and the Cubs have played them reasonably well (5-7, winning a series both in Pittsburgh and at Wrigley Field). Props today to the new acquisitions, Guerrier and Pedro Strop, both of whom had excellent outings Sunday. If they keep this up, the bullpen may have finally been stabilized.

It was a hot and sticky afternoon at Wrigley, which chased many of the crowd away by the middle innings. Still, I'd rather have weather like Sunday's than the cold, windy, rainy mess that's been spring 2013 in Chicago.

The Cubs originally had Monday off, but will take a quick detour to the South Side of Chicago to play the White Sox in a makeup of the game that was rained out May 28. A win over the Sox -- who are 10-27 since the Cubs won the first of that planned two-game set May 27 -- would give the Cubs a sweep of their season series with the White Sox.

That'd be nice. Be here tomorrow for all the Cubs/White Sox festivities.