Two doors and an equipment storage room separate the visitors’ clubhouse at Wrigley Field from the concourse, but the smell of champagne easily wafted through.
The Pittsburgh Pirates already had secured their 2-1 win against the Chicago Cubs, courtesy of a ninth-inning home run by Starling Marte. Then they watched as Adam LaRoche popped out, sending the Washington Nationals to a 4-3 loss against the St. Louis Cardinals and guaranteeing the Pirates a playoff spot for the first time since 1992.
The Pittsburgh Pirates (90-67) secured at least a spot in the one-game wild-card round. They are tied with the Cincinnati Reds, who also clinched a playoff spot Monday, and trail the Cardinals by two games. They have five more games to make up ground.
They are gunning for the Cardinals in order to avoid the one-game playoff. Failing that, they would like that wild-card game to take place in PNC Park rather than stay in Cincinnati after their weekend series at Great American Ball Park, a cozy stadium that fits the Reds’ powerful lineup well.
Players exchanged one uniform for another: Black playoff shirts and hats and ski goggles to protect their eyes from flying beverages. They sang “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” and serenaded Andrew McCutchen with “M-V-P” chants.
“I hope that Clemente Bridge is swaying a little bit right now,” Jason Grilli said. “Those bars, and everything downtown, I hope people are raising their glass right now. I’m sure they are.”
The playoff spot was in question down to the final out of the game, a close play at the plate. Manager Clint Hurdle used left-hander Tony Watson to retire Cubs slugger Anthony Rizzo in the ninth, then brought in Grilli for the chance to get the remaining two outs for his 32nd save. He did, thanks to some help on defense from first baseman Justin Morneau.
Morneau scooped a throw, made a diving stop, and relayed a ball to the plate for the final out. Nate Schierholtz, who reached on a forceout, took off when right fielder Marlon Byrd bobbled the ball on Ryan Sweeney’s single. McCutchen fired home and Morneau, who had drifted toward the middle of the field, quickly relayed the ball to catcher Russell Martin at the plate in time to nab Schierholtz.
“I saw him send him at third so I kind of peeked up,” Morneau said. “I looked to see if he was waving him home.”
Schierholtz’s head dipped. Martin raised his fist skyward. Grilli hugged Martin near the plate and Martin heaved the ball toward the left-field bleachers.
The Pirates led, 1-0, for the first seven innings thanks to Neil Walker’s first-inning home run, but the Cubs tied the score in the eighth.
Mark Melancon replaced Morton, who had given up a hit in each of the previous two innings but was at 89 pitches and cruising, in the eighth.
Brian Bogusevic hit a leadoff single. He took second on Darwin Barney’s grounder back to Melancon and went to third on a wild pitch.
Pinch-hitter Donnie Murphy singled past third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who was playing shallow to cut off the runner at the plate, and Bogusevic scored.
Morton followed one stellar start with another, throwing seven scoreless innings and allowing three hits, a walk and five strikeouts. His previous time out, Wednesday against the San Diego Padres at PNC Park, Morton pitched eight innings of one-run ball and allowed only two hits and one walk.
“I was getting some ground balls, especially with a lefty-hitting lineup,” Morton said. “Russ called a great game. The guys behind me had my back.”
Morton possessed good command of his sinker and kept the ball on the ground. Monday night, the grounders went toward his defenders. He kept his pitch count low, needing only 47 pitches through the first four innings.
The Pirates are back at it today, still with important matters at stake. For one night, though, they basked in the feeling of returning to postseason play.
General manager Neal Huntington, soaked but smiling as he watched the celebration, voiced the dichotomy of the evening.
“To see these guys bounce around, the excitement, the sheer joy in their eyes … ” he said. “At the same time, they know it’s just another step in the process.”