Anthony Rizzo thought he’d caught the foul ball. Many others at Wrigley Field, meanwhile, thought about Steve Bartman.
Despite a play that reminded Cubs fans of what went wrong many years ago, Chicago wound up clinching its fourth straight postseason appearance and holding its narrow lead in the NL Central with a 7-6 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates in 10 innings Wednesday night.
No one was in a partying mood inside the Cubs’ clubhouse, however. The champagne will have to wait.
“We’re not taking this for granted,” said Albert Almora Jr., who delivered a game-ending single. “We’re super pumped that we’re in the playoffs, but the job’s not done. We want to take this division and move forward with the best record in the NL.”
The Cubs were assured a playoff slot earlier in the evening when Milwaukee beat St. Louis. The Brewers, who also sealed a postseason berth, are a half-game behind Chicago — one of them will win the division, the other will play in the NL wild-card game next Tuesday.
Almora’s RBI single with two outs came after the Pirates tied it in the ninth, helped when a fan at cost Rizzo a chance to catch a foul pop.
Pittsburgh made it 6-all in the ninth on a two-out, two-run double by Starling Marte. Pinch-hitter Francisco Cervelli keyed the rally with a double, moments he lofted a foul pop along the first base side. Rizzo reached into the stands and around the protective net, but the Chicago first baseman came up empty when a fan stuck his hands up and made the grab.
Rizzo initially figured he’d nabbed the ball, only to see his mitt was empty. Rizzo punched his glove as he returned to his spot, but didn’t criticize the man who beat him to the ball.
“I thought I caught it,” Rizzo said. “It’s just one of those weird plays.”
No interference was called because fans have a right to ball that reach the seats — Rizzo leaned in, trying to make the play.
In Game 6 of the 2003 NL Championship Series against the Marlins, the Cubs seemed to be on their way to clinching a long-awaited World Series appearance when, holding a 3-0 lead in the eighth inning, left fielder Moises Alou tried to catch a foul ball that reached the stands. Bartman, a Cubs fan, reached out and deflected the ball before it got to Alou’s glove.
The Marlins went on to score eight runs in the inning, won the game and then won Game 7 the next day to take the NL pennant.
This time, the Cubs eventually held on.
Ian Happ led off the 10th with a walk and was replaced by pinch-runner Terrance Gore. Mike Freeman’s sacrifice moved up Gore, and he took third on a groundout. Almora grounded a single to left on an 0-2 pitch from Richard Rodriguez (4-3).
“When you win a tough game like that, you’ve got to give your guys a lot of credit for sticking around and not folding the tents,” manager Joe Maddon said.
Jason Heyward homered and drove in three runs for the Cubs. Javier Baez singled for his NL-leading 111th RBI as the Cubs won after blowing a five-run lead. Star third baseman Kris Bryant didn’t play because of a bruised left wrist.
Jose Osuna and Corey Dickerson homered for Pittsburgh.
Brandon Kintzler (3-3) got the only batter he faced in the top of the 10th to hit into a double play.
The Cubs led by five and still took a 6-2 lead into the eighth behind solid pitching from Jose Quintana and Jesse Chavez, but the rest of the relievers struggled.
“We stayed hunting,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “We continued to play.”
Carl Edwards Jr. started the eighth, but was yanked after walking two of the three batters he faced. After retiring the first batter he faced, Steve Cishek gave up a walk and a two-run single to Elias Diaz to make it 6-4. Following an intentional walk to load the bases, Cishek got Pablo Reyes to ground out to end the threat.
Chicago wasn’t as fortunate in the ninth.
With a runner on first and one out, pinch-hitter Francisco Cervelli doubled off the wall in right. Justin Wilson got Adam Frazier on a popup and appeared on the verge of getting out of it, but Marte hit a liner that hit off first baseman Anthony Rizzo’s glove and rolled down the line for a tying double.
Some of the players believed it was fitting that the game on a clinching night was such a struggle.
“I think this year there’s been more peaks and valleys than last year,” Rizzo said. “It’s not been smooth sailing and we figure out ways to win as a team.”
The Cubs had managed a total of five runs in their last six games against the Pirates, including one run in the first two games of the series. But starter Ivan Nova couldn’t extend Pittsburgh’s pitching dominance. He was roughed up for six runs (five earned) on eight hits in four innings.
Pirates: RHP Edgar Santana (elbow) will undergo Tommy John surgery soon and is expected to miss the entire 2019 season. The 26-year-old Santana is 3-4 with a 3.26 ERA in 69 games this season.
Cubs: 3B Bryant sat out a day after being hit in the wrist by a pitch, but Maddon is optimistic the injury won’t linger. “It’s sore, like you would have anticipated,” Maddon said. “But, he thought, the swelling wasn’t as heavy as we anticipated.”
Cubs ace LHP Jon Lester (17-6, 3.43 ERA) faces RHP Trevor Williams (14-9, 3.04) in the finale of the four-game series Thursday night. Lester is 5-1 with a 1.96 ERA in his last seven starts, while Williams has allowed a total of eight earned runs in his last 12 starts for an ERA of 1.00 during that span.
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