The news was plastered on the famous hand-operated scoreboard atop the Wrigley Field bleachers: the Reds had lost to the Mets. If the Pittsburgh Pirates could finish a three-game sweep of the Chicago Cubs on Wednesday afternoon, they would own a two-game lead for the National League’s top wild-card spot with three to play.
Instead, after a 4-2 loss to the last-place Cubs, the Pirates will enter Cincinnati this weekend needing two wins to secure home-field advantage in next Tuesday’s one-game wild-card playoff.
Chicago starting pitcher Jake Arrieta stifled the Pirates with six innings of four-hit, one-run ball and Darnell McDonald slugged a three-run homer in the sixth to provide the difference in the Cubs’ final home game of the year. Pittsburgh (91-68) had an opportunity for a comeback in the ninth when Jose Tabata tripled home a run, but Chicago reliever Kevin Gregg struck out pinch-hitter Marlon Byrd and Starling Marte to stop the Bucs’ short winning streak at two.
The Pirates’ loss, coupled with the Cardinals’ win over the Nationals, pushed them three games behind in the race for the NL Central crown. Pittsburgh still has an outside shot at setting up a one-game playoff for the division Monday, but it would require a sweep in Cincinnati and three straight wins for the Cubs in St. Louis.
Frustration reigned for both offenses in the first five innings Wednesday, as they combined to strand 10 runners in scoring position. The Pirates went 1 for 8 in such situations during that span, then failed to convert Justin Morneau’s leadoff double in the sixth into the tiebreaking run. Morneau had walked with the bases loaded in the third to make it a 1-1 game.
Chicago finally came through in the sixth against Pirates starter Francisco Liriano. Donnie Murphy led off with a ground-ball single through the left side, then Junior Lake walked to bring Darnell McDonald to the plate. The 34-year-old slugged just his 20th major-league home run into the left-field bleachers to put the Cubs up three and send the Bucs to the bullpen.
Liriano was effective in squirming out of jams, but he didn’t seem to have his best command in what should be his final regular-season start. The lefthander allowed eight hits – three for extra bases – and a walk in his five-plus innings of work. Liriano, who is projected to start the probable wild-card game vs. Cincinnati, posted a 3.02 ERA and a .224 batting average against in 26 starts.
The Cubs got on the board in the bottom of the first when Darwin Barney doubled with one out and Anthony Rizzo singled him home. Barney and Rizzo collected two hits each against Liriano.
Pittsburgh leadoff hitter Marte did his job effectively, reaching base and stealing second in his first three times at bat. Marte and Morneau were the only Pirates with multiple hits, and Marte now has 40 steals, making him the first Buc to reach that plateau since Tony Womack in 1998.
Pedro Alvarez showed off his speed in the fourth inning, when his liner zoomed off Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro’s glove and into the left-center field gap. Lake didn’t field the ball cleanly up against the wall, giving “El Toro” a chance to motor into third with no outs. However, Tony Sanchez popped out and Clint Barmes, after fouling off a suicide squeeze attempt, lined to third for a disheartening inning-ending double play.
The Pirates will enjoy their first off-day since Sept. 5 on Thursday before starting their final series of the regular season. The Bucs and Reds will face off Friday at 7 p.m. at Great American Ball Park, with A.J. Burnett opposing Homer Bailey.