Even as Cubs waited to uncork celebration, playoff specter of Gerrit Cole loomed large

Cubs lock up first playoff spot since 2008 (1:34)

The Baseball Tonight crew breaks down what got the Cubs to the postseason earlier than expected. (1:34)

CHICAGO -- The wait was ... almost over.

The Chicago Cubs almost clinched a playoff spot Friday afternoon, before losing to the Pittsburgh Pirates 3-2.

They almost tied the game during a raucous ninth inning, before two rookies struck out on Mark Melancon curveballs, stranding the tying run on third.

So close, so close. The Cubs were so close to getting to the playoffs that, after the loss to the Pirates, players were asked if they would celebrate Friday night if the San Francisco Giants lost to the Oakland Athletics -- which the Giants indeed did, to send the Cubs to the playoffs for the first time since 2008 -- and the Cubs backed into a clinch. Everyone said no, because of a noon start Saturday, but Saturday afternoon through the wee hours Sunday is a different story.

“We’re going to celebrate,” outfielder Chris Coghlan said. “We’re not a team that misses out on a celebration.”

Now that the Cubs have clinched at least a wild-card berth, everyone -- from president Theo Epstein to long-suffering fans in bar rooms and their living rooms -- should celebrate the franchise's official return to the postseason accordingly. Pop some bubbly, find an old case of Special Export Light, buy a Schwarber shirsey. Do your thing.

Because everyone should party for the playoffs. It’s been a while.

The hangover is what awaits them in the postseason: a one-game playoff in Pittsburgh with Gerrit Cole on the mound.

And the anticipation and pressure builds in Chicago, where a winning Cubs team brings up religion, mysticism, psychology, history and a careful study of batting average with runners at third and fewer than two out.

For all the buildup -- the press box was jammed Friday, TV folks crowded the dining room, national reporters have been filtering in and out for weeks -- there could be a very quick conclusion to the postseason.

As we've known for some time, facing Cole -- who will almost assuredly face the Cubs in that one-game, winner-takes-all scenario -- is the prize for having the third-best record in the National League. And as we saw Friday, beating Cole isn’t going to be easy.

The 6-foot-4 right-hander averaged 97.6 mph on his 84 four-seam fastballs Friday, according to Brooks Baseball. Cole got 16 “whiffs,” according to the site, with that pitch.

“He’s got plus stuff,” said Coghlan, who walked, struck out and grounded out against the 25-year-old. “Anytime you face an ace, you know that, with that kind of stuff it’s going to be a grind, and when he misses his pitches, you’ve got to capitalize on them.”

In four starts against the Cubs, Cole has a 2.13 ERA (six earned runs, eight total, in 25⅓ innings). He’s struck out 32, given up just one extra-base hit, and walked four, half of which came Friday. One extra-base hit! (It was a Tommy La Stella double Sept. 15.)

“I think anytime you face him, the more you face him, as a hitter, the more I face a pitcher, the better I feel,” Coghlan said. “Just because of how they’re going to attack. He attacked differently today, for me, than he did the first time. It’s just a game of adjustments.”

It’s not as if the Cubs can’t scratch a few runs against Cole. They had six hits and scored three earned runs, four total, against Cole the previous time they faced him, Sept. 15 in Pittsburgh. Cole left after 6⅓ innings and got a no-decision in a 5-4 Pirates victory.

In fact, Friday marked the only time this season Cole has gotten through seven innings against the Cubs.

The good news for the Cubs is the Pirates didn’t have to face their ace, Jake Arrieta, who has a chance to build on his Cy Young candidacy with a Sunday Night Baseball start. The Cubs’ $155 million man, Jon Lester, was very good Friday opposite Cole, but Arrieta is a shutout waiting to happen.

So while we didn’t get the full postseason preview Friday, we got a teaser with a taut game full of playoff moves by the managers, small mistakes and timely hits that paid big dividends.

“Great game,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “We both have something to play for, that was a great game today. Loved every second of it, obviously prefer winning it. As baseball goes this time of year, that was pretty fun to watch.”

In the third, Lester gave up a double to Jordy Mercer and a single to Cole. In the seventh, he gave up a double to Aramis Ramirez and a run-scoring single to Michael Morse. Pedro Strop gave up another run in the eighth.

The Cubs nearly came back in the ninth, with the end result Jorge Soler and Javier Baez striking out with pinch runner Quintin Berry 90 feet from tying the game. But close won't cut it in a one-game playoff.

The Cubs are dead last in the National League in batting average with a runner at third and fewer than two out, hitting .236. More important, they are tied for next-to-last with 154 RBIs in that situation and next-to-last with 162 runs scored. It’s an issue.

“With a runner at third and less than two outs, we’ve got to move the baseball,” Maddon said. “That’s been a big problem for us.”

So 90 feet away from a tie is no reason to celebrate, but while this was a preview for observers, the Cubs, old and young, can’t prepare for the postseason, at least according to one grizzled playoff veteran.

“We can talk about playoff atmosphere and playoff intensity and all that stuff, but until you’re actually there, it’s something you can’t really describe or explain to guys,” Lester said. “We all know what’s in front of us, and this is probably going to be our opponent.”

Cole wasn’t about to give any juicy preview quotes.

“Nothing about the playoff,” he told reporters.

The Pirates are now up 4½ on the Cubs for home field in the wild-card game but are still trying to catch St. Louis for the division. They trail by 3 entering play Saturday, and they host the Cardinals next week.

Here's what I learned Friday: The feeling of inevitability, whether you’re an eternal optimist or a hardened cynic, has returned to Wrigley Field. Some only see the impossible becoming possible, while others envision a clear future.

No one does October anticipation like the Cubs, and that’s actually a good thing. That feeling of something wonderful coming around the corner is why this whole business exists.

But in this specific situation, there is the lyrical narrative of “This is the Year!” and there is reality.

It's a Cole World and the Cubs are just living in it.