After winning the first two games in Philadelphia, the Cubs dropped the next two and then the first game of a doubleheader in Pittsburgh. If they wanted to keep any hope of catching the Pirates for the top wild-card spot, they needed this one, and they got it, thanks to some great pitching by Jon Lester.
The Cubs were 83-61 after this win, four games behind the Pirates. They trailed the Cardinals for first place by seven games and were 7½ games ahead of the Giants for the second wild-card spot.
What would you have done?
Situation: top of the ninth inning, Cubs leading by one run, Jon Lester having pitched brilliantly all night but scheduled to lead off the inning and having thrown 105 pitches in eight innings. He's one of the worst-hitting pitchers in the game and the Cubs could use an insurance run or two.
Would you have pinch-hit for him?
This is why I'm glad Joe Maddon is managing the Cubs. Many managers would have automatically sent up a hitter for Lester and left things to the bullpen. I don't need to tell you how shaky the Cubs bullpen has been lately. Whether that's the reason Maddon let Lester bat (he managed a couple of foul balls before being called out on strikes) I don't know, but I do know this: Lester returned for the bottom of the ninth and set down three very good hitters -- Andrew McCutchen, Aramis Ramirez and Francisco Cervelli -- on six pitches to finish his first complete game as a Cub, and the team had a 2-1 win over the Pirates, splitting their doubleheader (and really, don't you hope this is the last doubleheader of the 2015 season?).
This kind of game is exactly why the Cubs signed Lester to a six-year, $155 million contract last winter. They wanted him to win games in September (and hopefully, October) just like this one. He allowed five singles and a walk and struck out nine, and the only Pirates run scored when he induced a double-play ball on which Addison Russell and Starlin Castro made outstanding plays (link here, no embed code available). The double play took the Pirates out of what could have potentially been a big inning.
In fact, Cubs defense was a big reason why Lester was able to throw this gem. Consider this outstanding grab by Kris Bryant in right field of a drive by McCutchen in the sixth inning:
Keep in mind this is a player who has played five professional games in right field.
Or this terrific play by Javier Baez at third base:
Again, that's a position that the player has barely played (seven professional games, five starts). Baez made a couple of other slick defensive plays in this game, and he might be the Cubs' best defensive infielder. Even Lester got into the act defensively, picking Starling Marte off first base to end the third inning:
That play is important not only for this game, but to show proof that Lester can, in fact, do something positive on the field defensively and with baserunners.
The Cubs scored in the first inning off J.A. Happ on a double by Austin Jackson and a single by Anthony Rizzo. Jackson and Happ were teammates in Seattle less than two months ago and neither was playing well for the Mariners; now they're key acquisitions by N.L. Central playoff teams. They added the second, and eventually decisive, run in the fifth on doubles by David Ross (!) and Dexter Fowler. In between, Lester laid down a bunt to try to advance Ross to third. Ross was called safe, and the call was confirmed on review. Fowler's double scored Ross and moved Lester to third, and with nobody out a big inning seemed possible. But Jackson and Bryant struck out and then Pirates manager Clint Hurdle went against the platoon advantage by walking Rizzo to pitch to Castro. It worked, as Castro flied to right and the Cubs once again, as they have so often in recent games, failed to turn an opportunity like that into a multi-run inning.
Thanks to Lester, it didn't matter. Continuing his alternate-month 2015 pattern, Lester has been outstanding in September:
April: four starts, 6.23 ERA May: six starts, 1.75 ERA June: five starts, 5.74 ERA July: six starts, 1.66 ERA August: five starts, 5.04 ERA September: three stars, 1.71 ERA
Now, we just have to hope that he breaks that pattern in October.
No question, the Pirates are a very good team. But the Cubs have shown they can play right there with them. The Pirates are 50-23 at home, but the Cubs have gone 4-4 in PNC Park, and in this nightcap of the doubleheader, the Cubs broke a streak the Pirates held of 12 straight one-run wins at home. The win upped the Cubs' record in one-run affairs to 30-19. In the 115 seasons since 1901, it's just the 13th time any Cubs team has won 30 one-run games in a season. One more such win and they reduce that "13th" above to "seventh." The team record for one-run wins in a season is 37, set in 1907. The 30 one-run wins this year is the most since 1998.
Just looking at the pitching matchups for this doubleheader, you'd have thought it would likely split, and that's exactly what happened. Sure, the Cubs had a chance at a sweep after their comeback to tie the opener, but Lester made sure that his team came out of Tuesday with one win. The status quo reigned in the N.L. Central race as the Cardinals also won Tuesday evening. In the wild-card race the Nationals won but the Giants lost to the Reds in extra innings. The Cubs still trail the Pirates by four games for the top wild-card spot and lead the Giants by 7½ games, with a magic number to clinch a playoff spot of 11.
With Jake Arrieta taking the mound tonight against A.J. Burnett, the Cubs have a very good chance of reducing that magic number and edging closer to the Pirates. Two more Cubs wins over the Pirates would also clinch the season series, which would give the Cubs home field in the wild-card game if the teams wind up tied at season's end.
Thanks, Jon Lester. That big contract is looking pretty good right now.