PITTSBURGH -- It may only be September but the Chicago Cubs' dramatic 3-2, 12-inning win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday night felt every bit like an October game. It had everything from sloppy play to key hits to pinch runners and great defense, but in the end it was a lockdown job by the Cubs' bullpen which brought the team within three games of the first wild-card spot in the National League.
"One of the things I've always used as a benchmark is an extra-inning win on the road," manager Joe Maddon said afterward. "That's not easy to do. Under these circumstances, at this place, at this time of the year, I'm really proud of the effort."
Ironically, Jake Arrieta airmailing an easy throw to first base in the sixth inning might have been the best thing to happen to the Cubs. It allowed the Pirates to score their first run of the game, and two innings later they would pull even with Chicago to send the game to extra innings. But experiencing that roller coaster ride forced the Cubs to battle through some adversity. Better that lesson is learned this month rather than next.
"These are the kind of moments, at this time of the year, when you are successful -- confidence can ooze out of those moments," Maddon said.
Just imagine where closer Hector Rondon's confidence is right now. He pitched a clean 11th inning to keep a 2-2 tie intact; then after Anthony Rizzo knocked in the go-ahead run with a sacrifice fly in the 12th, Rondon marched out there for a second inning. The rest of the bullpen was quiet. This was his game -- just like it will undoubtedly be at some point in the postseason.
"It felt like a playoff for us," Rondon said. "Most of us haven't been there; we want to be in one."
Feel it now so you know what it's like later. That's the takeaway from this game -- winning it was the frosting on the cake.
"There's not more intense games than you're seeing right now," catcher David Ross said. "I could talk all day about Ronnie [Rondon]. He's even getting better. A Rule 5 guy closing for one of the best teams in baseball. That's huge."
The experience extends past the bullpen. There was young Javier Baez in the middle of the action in that eighth inning, making a throw home to nail speedy Pedro Florimon and preserve a 2-1 lead. It came seconds after Baez had dropped a surefire line-drive double play, but he didn't lose focus. The Pirates eventually tied it, though the Cubs did well to give up just one run in the inning.
"We held serve," Maddon said. "That is outstanding. A bunch of young guys kept playing and eventually we got it done. The dugout was absolutely electric tonight. That was beautiful."
What's beautiful is getting needed experience while still getting a victory. Imagine next time the Cubs come to town, it could very well be Oct. 7 for the wild-card game. And once again NL Cy Young Award candidate Arrieta will be on the mound -- but even he isn't flawless. A master at commanding a baseball, he couldn't make the simple throw to first which gave initial life to the Pirates on Wednesday.
"That's going to bother me for a while," he said.
Little did he know the play would set off a series of moments which would benefit his team. The Cubs were given a dry run of what a playoff game would feel like, and they came out of it with flying colors. Being human on the mound forced Arrieta's teammates to pick him up. They did. His 20th win can wait five days. It'll come.
"Three games in the series thus far, three one-run games," Arrieta said. "These guys [the Pirates] play very sound, fundamental baseball. We play them tough. We know what we're up against in our division, but I don't think it bothers us at all."
It didn't on Wednesday, and the Cubs' magic number is down to 10.