CHICAGO -- In an attempt to prevent the Pirates from enjoying their celebration too much after clinching a playoff spot Monday night, Andrew McCutchen established a policy: We'll party tonight, their MVP candidate center fielder said, according to manager Clint Hurdle; tomorrow we play.
Sporting a regular lineup Tuesday night, the Pirates beat the Chicago Cubs, 8-2, at Wrigley Field. They knocked around Cubs starter Chris Rusin, forcing him from the game in the third inning, and rookie Gerrit Cole built upon his recent dominance.
"We soaked it in [Monday] night, we hung out at the hotel, we obviously hung out here, you guys were all here," Cole said. "Today was business as usual. We still got a shot to win the [National League] Central and that's really what we're going for."
The Pirates will need these types of performances to have any chance of catching the St. Louis Cardinals.
Tuesday night, Cardinals starter Michael Wacha lost a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning of 2-0 win that maintained the two-game lead over the Pirates with just four games to play.
But the Pirates did pick up a game on the Cincinnati Reds, as former teammate Vic Black closed out the New York Mets' 4-2 win at Great American Ball Park. At worst, the Pirates, who play the Cubs at 2:20 p.m. today, will enter the final regular-season series in Cincinnati this weekend tied with the Reds.
"We knew we had to come out here and play just because these games obviously are very meaningful," said Pedro Alvarez, who went 2 for 5 with two doubles and three RBIs.
The Pirates scored three runs in the second inning, two more in the fifth and two in the eighth. They had 12 hits, six for extra bases. Jordy Mercer hit his seventh home run in the third, Gaby Sanchez reached base three times, and Marlon Byrd went 2 for 4 with a walk and two runs scored.
Cole (10-7) allowed two runs in six innings, walking one and striking out six in a start he described as inconsistent. He lost the feeling of his breaking ball for a few innings. Once that returned, his fastball departed him. He ran sprints in the hallways between innings to keep warm, and high-scoring innings punctuated by pitching changes -- the Cubs used five relievers -- produced a lot of down time.
"The pace of the game was slow," Cole said of the three-hour, 19-minute game. "I'm not going to complain about scoring a lot of runs, that's for sure."
In five September starts, Cole has a 1.69 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 32 innings.
Cole allowed a run in the third, but motored through the fourth on six pitches, inducing two groundouts and a popup from the third, fourth and fifth hitters in the Cubs lineup. He struck out the side in the fifth. Donnie Murphy went down swinging, Brian Bogusevic looked at an inside fastball, and a breaking ball over the outside corner got Logan Watkins looking.
In the sixth, though, Cole hit a wall. Ryan Sweeney and Starlin Castro singled to start the inning, and Cole walked Junior Lake to load the bases with no outs.
"His put-away pitches weren't as sharp tonight as they had been in the past," Hurdle said.
Anthony Rizzo grounded to short, but Mercer bobbled the ball, allowing a run to score. Cole then struck out the next two batters.
Murphy hit a ball hard to right field, but a stiff wind blowing directly against the flight of the ball knocked it down to Byrd on the warning track.
"I had to do some different things in there," Cole said. "It was great to be able to learn from that and take that into some really meaningful games."
The final four games will mean something as well, specifically the difference between a spot in the division series on one end of the spectrum and a wild-card playoff game in Great American Ball Park on the other.
"[Monday] night was fun," Cole said. "It was well-deserved, it was well-deserved for the city as well. I think that was the first time this year we really allowed ourselves to just kind of relish what we'd done. At the same time, we've done such a good job of turning the page, whether it be we have a few bad games or whether we have a great game."
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published September 25, 2013 3:30 AM