Cubs in playoffs, walk off to hold Central lead
Almora's knock in 10th maintains Chicago's half-game edge
CHICAGO -- The Cubs finally figured out how to score against the Pirates and punched a ticket to the postseason on Wednesday night after they got some help from the Brewers.
Chicago's next step is to repeat as National League Central champions, although it will need to straighten out the bullpen first. Pinch-runner Terrance Gore scored on Albert Almora Jr.'s RBI single with two outs in the 10th inning to give the Cubs a 7-6 walk-off victory over the Bucs at Wrigley Field.
"We're super pumped we're in the playoffs," Almora said. "Our job is not done. We want to take this division and move forward with the best record in the National League, and have home-field advantage and stay home as much as we can."
Jason Heyward drove in three runs, including two on a first-inning home run, and NL MVP Award candidate Javier Baez knocked in his 111th run to spark the Cubs. Chicago began the day with a half-game lead over Milwaukee, which beat St. Louis, 2-1, to also clinch a playoff spot, and eliminate the Cardinals in the division race.
"You look at every year and it's been different, every different scenario that we've gone through," first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "That's the goal every year at the beginning of Spring Training is to make the postseason. We got a ticket in there and it's not easy to do, and guys are proud of it."
The Cubs didn't rush onto the field and spray champagne when the game ended. Manager Joe Maddon wasn't even aware the team had clinched a berth until a team official congratulated him.
He does know the Brewers want to win the NL Central, too.
"Of course, they do. They should. So do we," Maddon said. "That's the only way to play."
• Winning NL Central title is primary goal
If the Cubs and Brewers finish atop the division with the same record, they would play a tiebreaker on Monday at Wrigley Field. Chicago would host because it won the season series, 11-8. The losing team would host the Wild Card Game on Tuesday.
• Imagining crazy tiebreaker scenarios
The Cubs had a five-game lead in the NL Central on Sept. 2, but it had dwindled as the offense sputtered this month. Chicago had scored one or fewer runs in the previous six games against Pittsburgh, but Heyward finally broke through with two outs in the first, launching a 2-1 fastball from Bucs starter Ivan Nova to the opposite-field bleachers in left for a 2-1 lead.
The Pirates trailed, 6-4, in the ninth when they rallied against Justin Wilson, tying the game on Starling Marte's two-run double. The Cubs have been trying to find a closer since Brandon Morrow was injured in mid-July. The search apparently is ongoing.
"Give credit to the Pirates," Rizzo said. "They're going home in three, four days. They could have easily punted there and gone through the motions, but they fought to the end, and it says a lot about their team and how they're not going to give up."
Ian Happ walked to lead off the 10th and was lifted for Gore, who moved up on a sacrifice bunt before scoring on Almora's single. It was the Cubs' league-leading 47th come-from-behind win.
"After my first at-bat, I felt like I had a chance to crush that pitch, and I hit it off the end," Almora said of his at-bat in the eighth. "The selfish part of me is when they tied the game, I was like, 'All right. I'm going to get another chance.' I didn't know it would be in that situation. I'll take it, and I'm happy we got the win."
Winning the division and posting the NL's best record was advantageous in 2016 when the Cubs won the World Series. If they can repeat as division champs and finish with the NL's best record, they would begin postseason play on Oct. 4 at Wrigley Field against the Wild Card Game winner.
Maddon is the first Cubs manager to lead the team to the postseason four years in a row. He knows they set the bar high by winning the NL Wild Card in his first season in 2015, and reaching the League Championship Series that year. They've advanced to at least the LCS each of the past three seasons.
"We won a tough game against a tough opponent," Maddon said. "Our division, I think may be the strongest in all of baseball, and we came out on top and qualified for the playoffs, and yes, we want to win the division."
MOMENT THAT MATTERED
Finally: The Cubs had scored one or fewer runs against the stingy Pirates in their previous six meetings, but Heyward finally broke through with his homer in the first. Jose Osuna had given the Pirates a 1-0 lead with a home run in the top of the first, which had quieted the crowd.
"He's a presence for us, he's a monster presence for us," Rizzo said of Heyward.
M-V-P: With two outs in the Cubs' fourth, Daniel Murphy singled, stole second and scored on Baez's single for his NL-leading 111th RBI. Rizzo then singled and Heyward drove in Baez with a single, but Rizzo ended the inning when he was thrown out at third.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
The Pirates had a runner at first and one out in the ninth against Wilson when pinch-hitter Francisco Cervelli popped up toward the visitors' dugout. Rizzo appeared to catch the foul ball, but a fan got in the way. Cervelli then doubled to set up Marte's two-run double which tied the game at 6. More >
"I thought I caught it," Rizzo said. "It was one of those weird plays."
HE SAID IT
"We don't press, we don't put pressure on ourselves -- we leave that to [the media] and the fans. We have the utmost confidence in each and every one of us." -- Almora
"I think every year has its own story, its own different journey. This year, the roller coaster was a little more peaks and valleys than last year and the year before that, and the year before that. It's not smooth sailing. You figure out ways to win as a team and it's a good feeling." -- Rizzo
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
The Cubs had two on and one out in the third when Heyward popped up behind home plate. Catcher Elias Diaz made an acrobatic effort and caught the ball but the umpires ruled that the ball hit the screen. The Pirates challenged the call but after a review, the call stood.
Cubs left-hander Jonathan Lester (17-6, 3.43 ERA) will make his final regular-season start in the series finale against the Pirates at 7:05 p.m. CT on Thursday Wrigley Field. Lester picked up his 17th win in his previous start against the White Sox, and he is 3-1 with a 1.90 ERA in his past four starts. He's 3-1 with a 3.72 ERA in five starts against the Pirates, including a win on Aug. 16 at PNC Park. The Bucs will counter with righty Trevor Williams (14-9, 3.04 ERA).