By Chris Emma—
CHICAGO (CBS) – Champagne was on ice and the Wrigley Field crowd on its feet as Pirates closer Mark Melancon dropped a curveball to the dirt. Cubs rookie Javier Baez offered a noncommittal check swing, but he didn’t have much of a chance, even with a full effort.
A hush went over the Friendly Confines, and Melancon leaped off the mound and extended an exuberant fist pump. He removed his hat and began yelling at no one in particular, a sound that triumphed over moans and groans from the grandstands.
There would be no celebration at Wrigley on Friday, following a 3-2 clinch-spoiling Cubs loss. That champagne remains on ice for later use. Oh, and these Pirates are pretty darn good.
Pittsburgh boasts one of baseball’s best teams, with a top-tier arm in Gerrit Cole, who shut down the Cubs on Friday, plus a cast that includes former MVP Andrew McCutchen, key players like Starling Marte, Josh Harrison and the criminally underappreciated Aramis Ramirez.
When a game gets to the back end of the bullpen, there’s little chance of a Pirates loss, thanks to Melancon’s shutdown ability. Friday brought his 51st save of the season. This team is simply tough to beat.
“We don’t have the record we have for no reason,” McCutchen said.
That record now stands at 94-60 and 4.5 games ahead of the Cubs in the standings for the right to host the NL wild-card playoff game at beautiful PNC Park on Oct. 7.
Since late May, the Pirates have run away from the Cubs for second place in the NL Central and first place in the wild-card standings. As the 2015 campaign has progressed, Chicago picked up steam, and its young core began to grow, but it hasn’t resulted in catching up with Pittsburgh.
These Pirates have been machine-like for nearly the entire season. What’s their key to success?
“The key is winning,” McCutchen said. “Whatever it takes to do that, that’s what we’re going to do.”
For most of this season, the Cubs have set their sights on bringing the Pirates a loss in the one-game playoff. This meeting has seemed destined since the early onset of summer. As October has inched closer, there’s been constant rhetoric of pitching Jon Lester or Jake Arrieta (it’s recently been revealed that Arrieta will start) and how Joe Maddon will manage his talented lineup in a one-game playoff.
Of course, the reality looms that the Pirates are a brutally tough task. In a sample of that one-game playoff Friday, Pittsburgh made a statement.
Just 12 days before a likely start in the playoff game, Cole took the mound at Wrigley and dominated. His fastball averaged out at 97.6 miles per hour and was nearing triple digits in the seventh inning, his final inning of work.
After that, Pittsburgh skipper Clint Hurdle turned to setup man Tony Watson in the eighth and then Melancon in the ninth. The Cubs scored one on Starlin Castro’s RBI triple but couldn’t complete the comeback with a chance to clinch a playoff berth.
There was no sweat in the Pirates’ dugout. Pittsburgh entered Friday with a record of 80-1 when leading into the ninth inning. No. 81 (win 94 overall) was pretty sweet.
“It’s a high level of confidence,” Cole said of his team’s closing mentality.
The only question that looms in this playoff race is whether Pittsburgh can catch St. Louis for the Central crown. It trails by just 3.5 games entering the action Friday evening.
In this thrilling season, the Cubs have flourished with a youth movement of superstar talents, from Kris Byrant to Kyle Schwarber to Addison Russell. Combine that with the veteran presence of Lester, Arrieta, Anthony Rizzo and the supporting cast and it’s a team that can make a run for the World Series.
But it seems the Pirates will be standing in the way of these upstart Cubs, and they sure will be tough to beat.
Follow Chris on Twitter @CEmma670.