Meaningless September games don’t exactly feel that way when it’s the bottom of the ninth, the bases are loaded, card-carrying Designated Cubs Agitator Sean Rodriguez is at the plate, and you’re Félix Peña, looking for your first major-league save with a shaky two-run lead and a deserted bullpen.
What this contest lacked earlier in substantive drama, it made up for in that ninth inning, when suddenly it resembled just the sort of gravity-driven clash you might have expected, months ago, when eyeing a Cubs and Pirates series in the final week of the regular season schedule.
A double, a couple of walks, and a single had been enough to load the bases and shrink the Cubs’ 6-1 lead to 6-2 with Justin Grimm on the mound in the final frame. Then it was Andrew McCutchen’s turn to lay down some damage with an RBI double to make it an ominous 6-4 with the bases still jammed.
Peña will certainly not be on the Cubs’ playoff roster; he’s looking ahead toward next year rather than next week. But in the moment, he stared down threats like Jung-ho Kang and Rodriguez, and he fanned them both in the evening’s highest leverage at-bats to secure the win—lavish, unnecessary number 101 for the Cubs. It’s enough to remind you that there are still small battles being fought, even in these waning days.
Top Play (WPA): For Chris Coghlan, the September battle has been to establish a rhythm and prove his worth on a postseason roster. If you want to make a case for peaking at the right time, Coghlan is it, and the regularity of his playing (50 of his 119 total plate appearances for the Cubs this season have come in the month of September) certainly seems a contributing factor.
Facing Ryan Vogelsong with the bases loaded, Coghlan was emphatic, bouncing what was nearly a grand slam off the top of the center field wall to score Javy Báez, Munenori Kawasaki, and Dexter Fowler, all of whom had reached on walks (Báez was hit by a pitch). The bases-clearing triple (+0.269) formed the foundation of the Cubs lead, which Fowler added to with an RBI double in the fourth and the retrospectively essential bats of Báez and Albert Almora contributed to later in the ninth.
Bottom Play (WPA): John Lackey continued to build toward playoff form following his late August stint on the disabled list for right shoulder stiffness. While not quite as solid as his previous outing in which he allowed two runs on five hits over seven innings, Lackey kept the Bucs to one run in five frames, tossing 93 pitches. The one run in question came on a Francisco Cervelli double play in the second which scored Matt Joyce. Joyce had reached third base on a long single by Rodriguez (-0.097), but with a three-run lead, the Cubs gladly traded the point on the board for a pair of outs to end the inning.
Key moment: It goes without saying that Peña’s closing job was essential, but there was an earlier bases-loaded escape which narrowly bested the ninth inning action as far as WPA is concerned.
Lackey found himself in hot water a couple of times this game, notably after the Pirates set up a scenario in the fourth inning which was nearly identical to that in the second leading up to their first run. This time, Lackey walked Joyce with one out. Sitting on two strikes with his team down 3-1, Sean Rodriguez peskily roped another long single to center, stationing Pirates runners on the corners once more. Although Lackey proceeded to then walk Cervelli to load the bases, he cleanly got out of the jam thanks to Jordy Mercer’s liner straight at Munenori Kawasaki at second, triggering the double play which got Rodriguez at third. WPA rates this at a weighty +0.167 for the Cubs’ cause.
Trend to Watch: While Kris Bryant still sits one short of 40 home runs on the season, and Addison Russell chases the century mark with 94 RBIs, the fact remains that these games are most important for those guys on the fringe fighting for a playoff roster spot. Guys like Albert Almora, who continued a streak of good form on Tuesday night.
As Tommy Meyers recently wrote for BP Wrigleyville, Almora’s main appeal on a postseason roster is as a late-inning defensive replacement, but the outfielder’s form at the plate was what was needed this time around. After doubling in his initial pinch-hit at-bat for Anthony Rizzo in the seventh, Almora smacked a first pitch fastball in the ninth for a triple against Juan Nicasio. When he scored on a subsequent fielding error, the Cubs bumped their lead up to 5-1, but with the bottom of the inning panning out as it did, Almora’s contribution proved crucial.
Coming Next: It’ll be our last chance before the playoffs to see if Jake Arrieta has ironed out his mechanics, as the reigning Cy Young winner takes the mound for Wednesday’s 6:05 start, opposed by Pittsburgh righty Jameson Taillon. Arrieta will likely finish the regular season right around the 200-inning mark, and he’ll get an extended rest before his projected next appearance as the NLDS Game 3 starter on October 10. Watch Wednesday’s game on CSN or listen on 670 The Score.
Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports