The first thing you need to remember (besides heeding the "Don't panic!" in the headline) about the Cubs' 3-2 loss to the Pirates Friday afternoon is that Gerrit Cole is really, really good.
Jon Lester's supposed to be that good, too, and the two pitchers matched up in a tense pitchers' duel for the first seven innings. Cole was just a little bit better, allowing just one run on four hits. The Cubs had runners on second and third with two out in the second inning and couldn't score, pushed across a run on a fielder's choice in the fourth and had just one other baserunner off Cole.
Meanwhile, Lester retired the first seven batters he faced before giving up two straight hits in the third, a double and a single, resulting in the first run of the game. He then set down 11 of the next 12 before running into trouble in the seventh, when a double down the line by ex-Cub Aramis Ramirez, a bunt and a single by Michael Morse scored the second Pittsburgh run. It might have been more, but pinch-runner Sean Rodriguez inexplicably took off for second on an infield popup that was turned into a double play by Anthony Rizzo.
But the Cubs could not do anything with Cole, and the game went to the eighth 2-1 Pirates.
Pedro Strop struck out Jordy Mercer to lead off the inning, but the ball got away from Miguel Montero and Mercer reached base. Honestly, I couldn't tell whether Montero had a chance to stop the ball or not, but you really have to in situations like that. Pedro Alvarez singled Mercer to third and he scored on a ball that bounced high in the air to Starlin Castro.
Would Castro have retired Mercer if he'd thrown home? Here's the video (no embed code available). I've watched this several times; watching it live I didn't think Castro had a shot at a play at the plate. Here's exactly where Mercer was when Castro transferred the ball from glove to throwing hand:
Well, I don't know. I really don't. A perfect throw? Maybe. But then if Mercer is safe, so is Marte and Andrew McCutchen is up next and...
That turned out to be the deciding run, as the Cubs mounted a ninth-inning rally off Pirates closer Mark Melancon, who has only two blown saves this year. Chris Denorfia, batting for Strop, doubled down the right-field line and one out later Castro yanked a triple down the same line, scoring Denorfia.
Well. Now the Cubs have the tying run on third base with one out and Jorge Soler and Javier Baez due up. The wind was blowing in pretty swiftly and had already knocked down several fly balls from both teams. I thought, if anyone can yank a baseball out of the park in that wind, it'd be Soler. A walkoff homer in that situation might have rocked the old ballyard until it shook. But all the Cubs really needed was a medium-deep fly ball to tie the game.
Melancon struck out Soler on offspeed pitches and cutters. And then he did the same to Baez to end the game, with everyone in the entire ballpark on their feet, stomping and screaming, the first time all afternoon that the park had been rocking. The Cubs just hadn't generated enough offense to energize the throng of 40,432, which included a fair number of Pirates fans.
This is pennant-race baseball at its best. Even though the Cubs lost, you have to acknowledge this was a terrific game, well-pitched and well-played and the Cubs had a shot at it until the very last out. One thing they can take away from this game is that they can score on Melancon. This was his ninth appearance against the Cubs and they have scored in three of them. They are the only team to score in more than one game against Melancon this year, one of his two blown saves (April 21 at PNC Park) is against the Cubs and his ERA against them this year is now 4.50 (five runs in 10 innings, with 12 hits including three doubles and a triple. It might not have been quite enough to beat him and the Pirates Friday afternoon, but it should serve the Cubs well if they have to face him in the wild-card game.
The better news is that Melancon has now pitched three of the last four days and five of the last seven and might not be available for the Pirates Saturday.
Statistical note: Lester struck out six, giving him 198 for the season. He needs five more to have the most K's in a season, ever, by a Cubs lefthander (current mark, 202 by Ken Holtzman in 1970).
If you can't get into games like this, you don't love baseball. The intensity is incredible. I hope you felt it listening to or watching the game, wherever you were. It certainly was like that at Wrigley, at least in the last couple of innings. And now I find myself wanting the Giants to beat the Athletics tonight so the Cubs can clinch the wild-card spot in Saturday afternoon's contest, which will feature Jason Hammel against Francisco Liriano. Let's hope Hammel has an outing in him like Kyle Hendricks' start the other day against the Brewers, and the Cubs can solve Liriano.
Have faith. It'll happen. It was just delayed one day.