"It's put up or shut up time," said Cole, who improved his career record in September to 11-2. "Now's the time to get the job done. I worked really hard in the offseason to prepare for the season and you look up, it's suddenly September."
Said Cubs manager Joe Maddon: "We both have something to play for. As baseball goes this time of year, that was pretty fun to watch."
The Cubs' couldn't reduce their magic number of one, but their postseason spot was secured late Friday night when the Giants lost to the Athletics. The Pirates had already secured a spot, but with every win, they inch closer to capturing home-field advantage on Oct. 7 in a potential Wild Card matchup, which Cole is expected to start -- if they don't overcome the three-game lead the Cardinals hold in the NL Central. They lead the Cubs by 4 1/2 games for the top NL Wild Card spot.
"His fastball played big time and he used his pitches very professionally," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of Cole. "He was very aggressive on the mound and gave us the innings we needed to get us to the two guys who've been so good for us all year long." More >
"There's nobody better to have on the mound than Melancon with a man on third and one out," Hurdle said.
Despite the loss, the Cubs lead the season series against the Pirates, 10-7. If the two teams were to finish tied for the top Wild Card spot, the Cubs would own the tiebreaker and host the game at Wrigley Field. Will they watch the Giants game?
"We have a noon game [Saturday]," Maddon said. "Probably when I have to go to the bathroom at night, I'll check [the score]."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Fanning a rally: A leadoff strikeout turned into a big eighth-inning insurance run for the Pirates. Jordy Mercer fanned against reliever Pedro Strop, but the pitch got away from catcher Miguel Montero. Mercer reached on the wild pitch, moved to third on Pedro Alvarez's pinch-hit single and scored on Starling Marte's one-out grounder to short.
"At that point of the game, any run is big, especially on the road. You never know what you need," said Mercer, who scored what turned out to be the winner after Melancon, who had retired 26 men entering this game, allowed the ninth-inning run. "Nobody's perfect forever. But after he gave up that run, Mark got real tough, real nasty."
Start me up:Jon Lester posted his 20th quality start of the season, but he lost his second in a row at a time when the Cubs needed him to deliver. Maddon already has indicated Jake Arrieta would start the Wild Card Game. Lester also was unable to come through at the plate in the second, when he struck out to strand two.
Staring down trouble: Cole faced a big challenge in the sixth inning of a 1-1 game, and he was up for it. After Kyle Schwarber led off with a single, the count ran to 3-0 on Kris Bryant -- but Cole rebounded to fan him on a 96-mph fastball, then quietly retired the side on a fly ball and groundout.
"I went at [Bryant] at first hoping to get a double play, then climbed back in the count, then it was put-away time," Cole said.
Situational hitting: The Cubs did score against Melancon with one out in the ninth, but they stranded pinch-runner Quintin Berry at third. The Pirates closer struck out youngsters Jorge Soler and Javier Baez to end the game.
"You look at our team in general with runner on third and less than two outs, we're not really good," Maddon said. "Just try to get the run in. It doesn't have to be over the fence. There may have to be an adjustment. I say, 'Move the ball, move the ball.' We have to get better at moving the ball." More >
"He's got a competitive chip on his shoulder. And an elite skill set. Then add the fact he has a desire to be 'the guy.'" -- Hurdle, on some of the ingredients of Cole's 11-2 record in September
"The more reps you get against anybody, hopefully the more comfortable anybody gets. He's a great starter and he has good stuff, and he had good stuff today. If it does come down to him, we're going to have to bring our 'A' game for sure." -- Chicago's Chris Denorfia, on whether it helps to face Cole prior to possible rematch on Oct. 7
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Cole's sixth-inning strikeout of Bryant, his eighth of the game, was his 200th of the season, making him only the second right-hander (A.J. Burnett) and fourth pitcher (Bob Veale, Oliver Perez) in Pirates history to reach that total.
Lester struck out six, and he is now four strikeouts shy of tying Ken Holtzman's mark of 202 for the Cubs' single-season record for most K's by a left-handed pitcher, set in 1970.
Watson and Melancon closed out a game by working the eighth and ninth innings, respectively, for the 40th time this season; the Pirates improved to 37-3 in those games.
The Bucs also improved their MLB-best record in one-run games to 36-17, but this was only their third win in 11 one-run games on the road against NL Central teams.
Pinch-hitter Baez bunted down the first-base line to lead off the Chicago eighth, and he was called safe at first. The Pirates challenged the call, and after a review, the call was overturned.
WHAT'S NEXT Pirates:Francisco Liriano makes his first Wrigley Field start of the season in Saturday's 1:05 p.m. ET middle game of the series. Since joining the Pirates for the 2013 season, the lefty is 4-1 with a 2.17 ERA in nine starts against the Cubs, with 68 punchouts in 54 innings.
Cubs:Jason Hammel gets the start at Wrigley Field. Hammel is coming off a win over the Brewers in which he gave up three earned runs over five innings. The right-hander is 1-1 with a 3.78 ERA in three starts against the Pirates this season. First pitch is scheduled for 12:05 p.m. CT.