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Cubs 3, Pirates 2: Instant Classic

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How are we going to make it through October if September is this tense?

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

If this exact game -- all the plays in the field, all the pitching, all the hitting -- was wrapped up and played as the wild-card game October 7, it would become one of the most legendary postseason games of all time.

As it was, the Cubs' 3-2, 12-inning win over the Pirates Wednesday night in Pittsburgh had enough thrills and excitement to make it perhaps the Cubs' best win of 2015. That's a tall order, too, as the team has had many exciting victories this year, but this one, in the heat of a playoff race, might have also marked the young Cubs' coming of age. That's what Joe Maddon thinks, anyway:

"One of the things I've always used as a benchmark is an extra-inning win on the road," manager Joe Maddon said. "That's not easy to do.

"Under these circumstances, in this place, this time of year, I'm really proud of our effort."

This game had just about everything, and I'm sure I'm going to leave something out in trying to summarize the four hours and 17 minutes of playoff-level baseball, but let me first note that the Cubs had timely hits -- but also massive failure at hitting with runners on, as they went 4-for-19 with RISP and left 12 men on base. They had some tremendous plays in the field, but also some very poor defensive play.

When it was all over, even though Jake Arrieta will have to wait one more start for another chance at his 20th win, the game went into the "W" column, which is the most important thing.

I suppose I'll start at the beginning. I expected a tough pitchers' duel between Arrieta and A.J. Burnett, who had faced each other three other times this year, and that's exactly what we got through the first five innings. The Cubs certainly had their chances early on:

  • Kris Bryant doubled leading off the second, one of his three hits on the night -- stranded.
  • Dexter Fowler tripled with one out in the third, but could not score on a wild pitch that bounced back quickly to Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli. Kyle Schwarber walked, but both were left on base.
  • Bryant singled leading off the fourth, but was erased on a double play.
  • Javier Baez singled leading off the fifth and stole second -- nope. He didn't advance past there.

So on we went to the sixth in a scoreless tie, when Bryant doubled in Anthony Rizzo, who had singled with one out. After a single by Miguel Montero moved Bryant to third, Starlin Castro laid down a perfect safety squeeze, scoring Bryant. When reliever Jared Hughes threw the ball away, Castro was safe. Arrieta grounded an infield single, loading the bases, but the Cubs could not score any more runs. Still, with Arrieta breezing, 2-0 seemed as if it might win the game.

That's when the defense started to get wonky. Gregory Polanco singled with two out in the bottom of the sixth and stole second. Arrieta got Starling Marte to hit a comebacker.

Arrieta, in general, is a pretty good fielder (though he had made four errors this year prior to Wednesday night). He took this one and treated it like Jon Lester might have, overthrowing Rizzo. That allowed Polanco to score, an unearned run, but a run nevertheless, cutting the lead to 2-1.

In the top of the eighth, Montero singled with one out and stole second. Wait, what? That was Montero's first steal since 2011 and just the third of his career (in 11 attempts). But Castro struck out. Baez was walked intentionally, and Arrieta struck out to end the inning.

Now here's where the game got completely wacky. The Pirates led off the bottom of the eighth with back-to-back singles putting runners on first and third. The Cubs pulled the infield in and Josh Harrison slapped a ball to Baez. Then this happened:

I think they made the right call, as JD said, that's just a good baseball play. But Montero could have been said to have been "blocking" the plate, though that's not what was ruled. I think MLB is going to have to clarify that rule yet again this offseason. Arrieta then walked Pedro Alvarez to load the bases, and I'm not sure I can adequately describe in words what happened next, so watch it here:

Essentially, Castro fielded a ground ball and figured he couldn't turn a double play, went for the sure out at first as a run scored, then the Cubs got Harrison caught in a rundown and Bryant eventually tagged him out to end the inning.

So now it's 2-2 and the fun has just begun. The Cubs went out 1-2-3 in the ninth, and Arrieta was lifted after 117 pitches for Pedro Strop. Marte singled to lead off the ninth, but after a lazy fly ball by Andrew McCutchen (who Cubs pitching held to an 0-for-5 night with four strikeouts), Aramis Ramirez hit into an inning-ending double play that wasn't easy; it took this fantastic stop by Castro to get it done:

That was just an outstanding play by Castro that might have saved this game.

Nothing unusual happened in the 10th, which is unusual in itself; that's about the only inning in this one where nothing odd transpired. Relievers Mark Melancon and Fernando Rodney had uneventful innings. At this point it's a good thing that Melancon, who is having a lights-out year, is out of the game. The Cubs got a one-out single from pinch-hitter Tommy La Stella in the 11th, but Marte fired a laser beam to second and threw him out trying to stretch the hit into a double. The Cubs Twitterverse seemed to think at the time that was an "easy" double, but I didn't see it that way. La Stella has only average speed and Marte leads the league in outfield assists. TLS should have held at first.

But Hector Rondon put the Pirates down 1-2-3 in the 11th on just 11 pitches. That pitch count would prove to be important.

Chris Denorfia, who's had little playing time recently with the addition of Austin Jackson, singled to lead off the 12th off Vance Worley, who was making his first big-league appearance since July. Here's where you can see the value of Quintin Berry on a postseason roster. Berry ran for Denorfia and took second on a wild pitch and third on a single by Jackson.

Then Rizzo lofted a fly ball to short left-center field that was run down by Marte (video link; no embed code available, and no, I can't figure out why MLB allows embed codes for some videos the next day, but not for others). Would Denorfia have been able to score on that shallow fly ball? Maybe, but Berry's speed made it much easier.

Since Rondon had thrown only 11 pitches in the 11th, he remained to face Marte, McCutchen and Ramirez, the heart of the Pirates batting order, in the 12th. Ramirez hit a two-out single, but Rondon got Jung Ho Kang to hit a soft liner to Baez to end it, and the Cubs had the win.

As I said, I'm sure I left something out here that you might have found important, so feel free to weigh in with your thoughts in the comments.

What's most important is not only that the Cubs won this game, but that they showed the Pirates that they can compete equally with a team that's been the best in baseball since about mid-May. Since the Cubs/Pirates set at Wrigley ended May 17, the Pirates are 69-38 -- but the Cubs are very close behind at 63-45. Since these teams appear headed for a wild-card game matchup October 7 -- and yes, there's still a chance that game could be at Wrigley Field, though right now it's more likely to be at PNC Park -- it could be an epic matchup.

The win brought the Cubs to within three games of the Pirates for the top wild-card spot. The Giants and Nationals both won Wednesday night, so the Cubs' magic number to clinch a postseason berth is 10 over the Giants, nine over the Nats. More importantly, the win was the ninth for the Cubs over the Bucs this year against six losses. That means if the Cubs can win Thursday's afternoon game, they would not only win this series, but clinch the season series. That would give the Cubs the tiebreaker for home field in the wild-card game if the teams wind up deadlocked for the two wild-card spots at season's end.

Kyle Hendricks takes the mound for the Cubs in just a few hours against the Pirates' Charlie Morton. That seems like a fairly even pitching matchup. Both teams are likely exhausted after Wednesday night's marathon, which featured 173 pitches from Cubs hurlers and 192 from Pirates pitchers.

The game preview will post at 10 a.m. CT. Personally, I can't wait.