Cubs come up short in potential wild-card preview

CHICAGO -- Considering it felt like a playoff game, let's analyze the Chicago Cubs' 3-2 loss Friday to the Pittsburgh Pirates as if it were one. It could very well play out in a similar manner come Oct. 7, when these teams will likely face each other in a wild-card affair. It's looking more and more likely that game will be played in Pittsburgh.

The Cubs had their chances but didn't execute in several key moments against a team that is playing its eighth straight road game after coming to town Thursday night from Colorado. The Pirates were the sharper team by one run -- and it made the difference.

Key moment No. 1: Even though it came in the third inning, Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole had a key RBI single off of Jon Lester, scoring the game's first run. Considering the final margin of victory, it was a big play.

"We had a game plan," Lester said. "Tried to execute a pitch. Probably could have been inside more."

Cole hit a 94 mph fastball for a base hit up the middle, so Joe Maddon's pregame compliments of the Pirates pitcher rang true.

"I didn't know what a great athlete he was," Maddon said. "That part concerns you even more. You watch him swing a bat, you watch him field his position. He's a very good athlete."

File that for Oct. 7. Cole can handle himself on the mound, at the plate and on the basepaths. Lester didn't beat himself up too much about that hit, though.

"Sometimes you have to tip your hat," he said.

Key moment No. 2: With the Pirates leading 2-1, Pedro Strop took over for Lester in the eighth inning and promptly allowed leadoff man Jordy Mercer to reach on a dropped third strike ruled a wild pitch. It was Strop's sixth wild pitch this season, and Mercer would prove to be the eventual winning run. Catcher Miguel Montero had just entered the game as well. He's had a few high-leverage wild pitch/passed ball type plays in key moments this year.

According to Baseball Info Solutions, Montero ranks 32nd out of 63 catchers in blocking low pitches. His 32 "wild pitch misplays" rank 16th. According to Fangraphs, Montero has minus-2 defensive runs saved, ranking him 37th of 54 catchers with at least 300 innings caught.

In other words, Montero is average at most of these defensive statistics, which corresponds with the eye test. He could be better at some of those finer points behind the plate, but there are worse defensive catchers in the game. However, it could be a factor in a tight game.

Key moment No. 3: With Mercer on third later in the inning and one out, Maddon had his infield in to cut off the insurance run as the Cubs still trailed 2-1. Mercer took off for home on a chopper to short. Starlin Castro decided to go to first after seemingly bobbling the ball. Did he have a play at home?

"I thought he might have," Maddon said. "The only way to know is if he threw the ball to the plate. It would have been bang-bang."

Without a bobble, Castro has to come home as the risk is worth the reward. The Cubs didn't need another run to chase in a low-scoring game, but if he bobbled it then first base was the right move. Of course, some will argue Maddon had his third-best defensive shortstop playing in a one-run game. It's a play you could envision Javier Baez making -- he made a tougher one at home just recently. Either way, it was a key run.

Key moment No. 4: The Cubs cut the lead to one, 3-2, after a Chris Denorfia double and Castro triple in the ninth off of closer Mark Melancon. In the biggest moments of their career to date -- with the 40,432 in attendance on their feet -- Jorge Soler and Baez had a chance to tie the score. With one out, Soler needed to make contact.

"Doesn't have to be over the fence," Maddon said. "Just move the ball and force the defense to play. Get the high chopper like they did, for example."

Soler struck out on five pitches, the last one a nasty curve that hit the dirt in front of the plate. The Cubs' .236 batting average with men on third base and fewer than two outs ranks last in the National League. They also rank first in strikeouts in those situations by a wide margin. Baez followed Soler with a strikeout as well.

"Runner on third, less than two outs," Maddon said. "We have to move the baseball right there. That's been a problem for us."

Though they lost, maybe the Cubs learned a few things about playing playoff-type baseball. The game could easily have cost them home-field advantage in the wild-card game as they trail the Pirates by 4.5 now. But maybe the needed experience trumps the meaning in the standings.

"That's what it's supposed to look like at this time of the year," Maddon said. "They beat us by a run. Bully for them."

In October, it will mean the difference between moving on or going home for the winter.