In the span of about 30 minutes, the Pittsburgh Pirates went from thoughts of a series win in Chicago to wondering what happened.
In what has to be the staggering Bucs’ most frustrating loss of the season, the Cubs rallied from deficits of 6-1 and 9-5 to stunningly snatch a 13-9 win Sunday afternoon at wind-swept Wrigley Field. Chicago now leads the four-game series 2-1, with Monday’s finale on the way.
With Los Angeles and St. Louis playing a night game, the Pirates (73-72) are now ensured of falling three games behind the National League’s second wild card spot by Monday morning. Pittsburgh has lost eight of nine to put a potential winning season in jeopardy with 17 games left.
Youthful power was on display in the four-hour tilt, with Pittsburgh’s Pedro Alvarez and Chicago’s Anthony Rizzo each launching a pair of impressive homers with a stiff breeze blowing straight out to center field. Alvarez drove in five runs with round-trippers in the fifth and sixth innings, but rookie Rizzo matched him each time in the bottom halves of those innings, including a grand slam that put the Cubs ahead 10-9 after six.
Starling Marte, who had three hits on the day, led off the seventh with a triple, setting up the Pirates to at least tie the game again. But he was improbably stranded there when Neil Walker lined out to second, Andrew McCutchen struck out looking and Marte was thrown out trying to complete a double steal after Cubs reliever Jaye Chapman walked Garrett Jones.
Even if the Pirates were able to make it 10-all, their suddenly combustible bullpen figured to give it right back. As it happened, Chicago tacked on three more against Chris Leroux in the eighth to provide the final margin.
The slumping Jared Hughes was given the loss due to giving up Rizzo’s slam, but Rick VandenHurk was just as culpable in the sixth, as he loaded the bases without recording an out to start the inning.
Pirates lefthander Jeff Locke is now winless in his first seven major-league starts after allowing five runs on seven hits in 4 1/3 innings. Chicago starter Chris Volstad was even worse, getting tagged with 10 hits and six runs; the former Marlin failed to complete five innings as well.
The Cubs actually led 1-0 on Alfonso Soriano’s RBI single in the first, but the Pirates teed off on Volstad in the second. Rod Barajas, continuing recent signs of life at the plate, popped a two-run shot to left, followed by McCutchen’s run-scoring single.
Pittsburgh chased the struggling Chicago starter with three more in the fifth, highlighted by Alvarez’s monster opposite-field blast over the Wrigley bleachers. Marte singled home Barajas, who reached base three times, to send Volstad to the clubhouse.
However, in an ominous bit of foreshadowing, the Cubs immediately cut into the Pirates’ five-run lead. Joe Mather (solo homer) and Rizzo (two-run blast) took Locke deep in the fifth, and Wellington Castillo singled home Soriano against reliever Chris Resop to make it 6-5 entering the sixth.
Once again, Alvarez drove an outside pitch onto Sheffield Avenue to extend the visitors’ advantage, this time a three-run whack off Jeff Beliveau; Pedro now has 29 home runs, a career-high and team-best total. Absurdly, Beliveau was awarded the win when Rizzo struck in the bottom half, highlighting the irrelevance of pitching decisions.
At any rate, nine runs should be enough to win any game, especially one against a fifth-place team in a tight playoff race. Once again, the Pirates showed that the final weeks of 2012 will be the sporting equivalent of exorcising a demon.
Nineteen years of losing won’t be easy to drive away, and it’s certainly not a guarantee now.