The Chicago Cubs finally figured out how to win a game in Pittsburgh by more than one run, and they did it with an offensive explosion, a six-run fifth inning that led the team to a 9-6 win over the Pirates Thursday afternoon.
This win accomplished a number of things, all important. It gave the Cubs a three-game winning streak coming back to Wrigley for the final regular-season homestand. It gave the Cubs a 7-4 road trip (and one that easily could have been 8-3 or even 9-2). It gave the Cubs a series win in Pittsburgh, the first time any Cubs team has won a series at PNC Park since April 2013. And most importantly, it was the Cubs' 10th win of the season against six losses to the Pirates, which means they've won the season series.
That's important in case the Pirates and Cubs tie for the two wild-card spots. If that happens, the Cubs now own the tiebreaker for home field for the wild-card game.
Of more importance right now is what to do with Kyle Hendricks, who was staked to a 3-0 lead by the top of the second inning, the key blows being RBI doubles from Addison Russell and Tommy La Stella (see? The Cubs can win when he starts!). But Hendricks got hit hard again in this one, allowing three home runs. Travis Snider, Gregory Polanco and Pedro Alvarez went deep on Hendricks, the Alvarez blast a majestic two-run shot that gave the Pirates a 4-3 lead.
Hendricks was done after 63 pitches, and Clayton Richard was summoned. That turned out to be a terrific move, as Richard not only shut the Pirates down (one of the two runs charged to him scored after he left the game), getting mostly groundouts, but he also hit a two-run double in the Cubs' big six-run inning.
That inning was begun by a Chris Coghlan double. Anthony Rizzo followed with his 30th home run of the season, and his first since Sept. 8 in St. Louis. It also made him just the second lefthanded hitter in Cubs history to have more than one 30-homer season. This is his second; Hall of Famer Billy Williams had five. Perhaps before he's done, Rizzo can match Billy's mark.
The Cubs weren't done in that inning, either; Kris Bryant singled, Miguel Montero reached on an error and Russell singled in the third run of the inning. Richard followed with his two-run double and it was 8-4. La Stella singled Richard in to make it 9-4, as the first six Cubs in the inning all reached base and scored. It might have been more, after Dexter Fowler followed with a single, but Kyle Schwarber hit into a force play and Austin Jackson, batting for Coghlan after the Bucs brought in lefthanded reliever Bobby LaFromboise, hit into an inning-ending double play.
After that it was up to the Cubs' long relievers to keep the Pirates down. Richard did his job, but again there has to be some concern about Justin Grimm, who relieved Richard after a double by Josh Harrison and single by Polanco made it 9-5. Polanco immediately stole second off Grimm and one out later, a ground-rule double by Neil Walker made it 9-6. Had that steal not happened, the double would have advanced Polanco only to third base.
Travis Wood finished up the last two innings uneventfully for the win, and for his second save of the year. The fact that both Richard and Wood threw in this game means Trevor Cahill is the likely starter Saturday afternoon at Wrigley Field against the Cardinals. It also means Cahill might have to go five innings, since the Cubs' two true "long" relievers, Richard and Wood, will likely be unavailable. I suppose the Cubs could dredge Tsuyoshi Wada out of the cobwebs anchoring him to the bullpen bench to relieve if Cahill gets in trouble, but Wada has not pitched since Sept. 4, when he threw an inning of relief for Triple-A Iowa. He hasn't thrown multiple innings since a 6⅔-inning outing against Sacramento for Iowa on Aug. 27. So the rest of the Cubs pen will have to be ready to go Saturday, and hope for five good innings out of Cahill.
And I think the Cubs really have to consider putting Richard and/or Cahill in the rotation, replacing one or more of Hendricks, Dan Haren or Jason Hammel , all of whom have struggled recently.
The Pirates' Jung Ho Kang was injured on a slide by Coghlan that appeared to be clean on an attempted double play in the first inning. Kang had to be helped off the field and as of now the Pirates just say he has a knee injury. It looked pretty serious, and that's a shame. Kang was having an outstanding rookie year for the Pirates, and you hate to see a guy like that injured, and it looks like he might be out a significant period of time. If I had to guess, looking at the way he couldn't put any weight on his leg walking into the dugout, he probably has a torn ACL and that would probably end his season.
The win reduced the Cubs' magic number over the Giants to clinch a postseason spot to nine (and eight over the Nationals), pending tonight's results (the Giants are off, the Nats host the Marlins). It also moved them to within two games of the Pirates for the top wild-card spot, with 16 games remaining, three of those against the Bucs at Wrigley, and within 6½ games of the Cardinals for first place in the N.L. Central, also pending St. Louis' game at Milwaukee tonight.
Three out of four in this series against the Pirates was about the best any of us could have dreamed of, I think, and it means the Cubs won six of the 10 games played between the two clubs at PNC Park this year. That ought to give the Cubs confidence they can win the wild-card game if it winds up there.
But maybe it won't. The Cubs still have a good shot at catching the Bucs, two games behind with 16 remaining for both clubs. It'll be fun to watch. Because baseball sure is fun these days. Right?
It should be a happy short flight (about an hour and 20 minutes) back to O'Hare for the Cubs this afternoon, and given the relatively early ending time of this game, the Cubs should be home at a reasonable hour (maybe by 9 p.m.) to prepare for Friday afternoon's game, when Haren will take the mound at Wrigley against Lance Lynn of the Cardinals at 1:20 CT.