The Cubs showed a 2015 highlight video on both Wrigley Field video boards before Saturday's game -- and really, there were many, many more highlights of this playoff season than they actually showed -- and then posted congratulations to this year's squad for returning to the postseason. That brought a loud ovation from a full house that was ready to rock and roll and see the Cubs try to win and close the gap between them and the Pirates.
Unfortunately, those were the only Cubs highlights visible in Wrigley Field Saturday afternoon, as Francisco Liriano dominated the Cubs for 7⅔ innings and the Pirates won their second straight over the Cubs, 4-0 on an absolutely gorgeous day that might have been the nicest weather day of the summer, and it's not even summer anymore.
Jason Hammel matched Liriano for four innings. He got eight of the first 12 outs on groundouts, allowed a pair of doubles and looked really good. He got lucky on the second double, hit by Andrew McCutchen with one out in the fourth. The ball looked headed for the seats, got knocked down by the strong breeze blowing in, and lodged itself in the ivy just below the basket in right-center field. McCutchen wound up stranded.
Then Hammel got hammered in the fifth. Mike Bojanowski called it "a Samardzija inning," and at least this year, that's just about right. Five straight hits off Hammel included a three-run homer by Jordy Mercer. Mercer came into the game with two home runs this year in 365 at-bats. That was all the Pirates would need, but they wound up with two more hits off Hammel before Joe Maddon had seen enough.
The bullpen did a good enough job, I suppose. Justin Grimm still didn't have very good command, walking one of the two hitters he faced, but between Grimm, Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard, Neil Ramirez, Tommy Hunter and Carl Edwards Jr., the pen threw five innings, allowed three hits (all off Hunter) and one run, with two walks and six strikeouts. It strikes me that once all the playoff positioning is settled -- and with these two losses, it could be sooner rather than later -- the Cubs ought to give Cahill a start to see whether he'd be a useful addition to the playoff roster. Ramirez also likely pitched his way onto the postseason roster, probably replacing Grimm, though a final resolution of that one might have to wait for a few more outings from both.
The Cubs never really threatened in this game. Kris Bryant doubled leading off the fourth and went to third on an infield out, but was stranded. Only one other Cubs runner got past first base: Addison Russell, who did it twice. He singled with two out in the third and advanced to second on an infield hit, and walked and went to second on a Bryant walk in the eighth. Neither seemed like any sort of serious chance, and with Liriano and two Pirates relievers dealing, the sellout crowd of 41,150 pretty much was taken out of the game early.
Bryant's two hits accounted for three total bases, giving him 268 for the season. That's another record for a Cubs player in his rookie season. The previous record of 265 was set by Billy Herman in 1932.
Crowds for this game began arriving very early, all hoping to get one of these:
Unfortunately for many, thousands had the same idea. Here's what the line looked like outside the bleacher season-ticket gate and near Gate K on Waveland about 15 minutes before they were supposed to open:
This doesn't show even half the people in line -- the line at the right went halfway to Sheffield. They finally wound up opening about 15 minutes later than scheduled (about 30 minutes after that photo was taken) and many people in line at that time didn't get bobbleheads. The bleachers were nearly full an hour before game time, something I haven't seen since at least 2008.
This game, unless there's an unlikely quirk of scheduling during the postseason, was the last day game of 2015 at Wrigley Field. Too bad, just as the weather's turned really good -- I'm sure you remember how horrid it was the first three months of this season. But we'll take October baseball no matter what time of day it's played.
The Cubs now trail the Pirates by 5½ games with eight to play (the Bucs have seven left) and so hopes of catching them and hosting the wild-card game are probably over. Also, if the Cardinals win tonight against the Brewers, the Cubs will be mathematically eliminated from the N.L. Central title race. That was all but a formality up to now. However, with the Pirates now the hottest team in the major leagues, riding an eight-game winning streak, they have a real chance of catching the Cardinals for at least a tie for the division title. The Pirates and Cardinals will meet for a three-game set in Pittsburgh starting Monday. The best-case scenario for the Cubs would be for those two teams to tie for the division championship, which would force a one-game tiebreaker Monday. The winner of the three-game set between St. Louis and Pittsburgh next week would host that game, since the teams are now tied in the season series with eight wins each.
Having such a game would push both teams to use a good starting pitcher and also use up their bullpen, while the Cubs await the winner Wednesday. My personal feeling is, if that happens, I'd like the Cardinals to win the tiebreaker and win the division, as I'd much rather face the Cardinals in a five-game series than the Pirates.
I realize I'm getting a bit ahead of myself, though, and I'm still happy that the Cubs will have at least one October playoff game this year. It would still be nice to get back to winning, and the Cubs have the man I consider the best pitcher in the National League this year, Jake Arrieta, facing A.J. Burnett Sunday night in ESPN's final Sunday Night Baseball broadcast of the season.