CHICAGO -- It felt like September at Wrigley Field on Wednesday night, a reminder that playoff baseball is right around the corner. The Cubs find themselves heading into the final month of the regular season with a substantial 15-game lead in the National League Central, while the Pirates have some work to do to stay in the Wild Card race.
Kris Bryant smacked his 36th home run and Addison Russell drove in two runs and made an amazing catch to lift the Cubs to a 6-5 victory and a sweep of the Pirates. It was Chicago's 22nd win of the month, matching the best August record in franchise history of 22-6 set in 1932. This is the first time the Cubs have won 22 games in any month since the team went 22-10 in September 1945.
"You never even imagine you'll have this kind of lead at this point in the season," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.
Jason Hammel posted a quality start, and, more importantly, was allowed to work out of a bases-loaded jam in the fifth. The right-hander was pulled after 2 1/3 innings on Saturday against the Dodgers, and on Wednesday, struck out six over six innings.
Ryan Vogelsong, making his sixth start since coming off the disabled list, took the loss as the Pirates closed August at 15-13. These two teams will meet once more this season, Sept. 26-29 at PNC Park.
"I think we put up a good fight," said Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer, who had a two-run double in the eighth inning. "I think they know that when they play us, they're in for a battle -- and I think a lot of other teams know that as well. Just a matter of putting it all together, especially against a good team."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Wind currents: The wind was blowing in from the north at Wrigley Field and did not favor hitters, but Bryant didn't seem to mind, launching an 0-1 pitch from Vogelsong into the left-field bleachers in the first inning. He's the first Cubs player to top 35 home runs since Aramis Ramirez hit 38 in 2006. Bryant finished the month of August with 10 home runs and 22 RBIs. The third baseman also was sharp on defense, making a diving catch of Sean Rodriguez's liner to end the second, a nifty backhand play on Josh Harrison to end the third and a grab of Josh Bell's popup near the stands in the fourth.
"That was kind of the plan -- you have to lower the launch angle with the wind," Bryant said jokingly of his home run.
Gold Glove-worthy: The Pirates loaded the bases with one out in the seventh, and Justin Grimm struck out Bell but walked McCutchen to force in a run. Gregory Polanco then popped up toward the left-field foul line and Russell was able to run and snare the ball with an amazing off-balance catch. The 106 feet he raced to make the catch was the farthest Statcast™ has tracked a shortstop who made a catch on a ball with a hang time of less than 5.5 seconds. More >
"That was one of the better catches I've seen," said Bryant, who had a front-row seat. "I thought it was [Matt] Szczur's ball and Addison comes out of nowhere. It's no surprise to me; he's been making plays like that all year long. That was huge in that situation. We had to really work for that win, and that was one of the plays that was a turning point."
Walk this way: Hammel had trouble finding the strike zone in the fifth and walked two with two outs, including Vogelsong. Harrison hit an RBI single that Bryant deflected to cut the Cubs' lead in half, at 2-1, and Hammel then walked Bell to load the bases. Maddon, who had a quick hook with Hammel in his last start, let him face Andrew McCutchen, and Hammel struck him out on a 93-mph fastball to end the inning.
Left in, knocked out: After Vogelsong escaped a jam in the fifth inning, retiring Rizzo to strand runners on the corners, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle let the veteran start the sixth against the middle of the Cubs' lineup. The move didn't pan out, as Vogelsong allowed a run and left the game without recording an out in the inning. In the end, Vogelsong was charged with five runs on six hits and three walks.
"I felt like I made three mistakes in the middle of the plate and they hit all of them hard," Vogelsong said. "I've got to stay out of the middle. … You know they're going to give you pro at-bats and they're going to be tough outs."
For the first time since joining the Cubs, Aroldis Chapman pitched in his third straight game, and he picked up his 46th straight save against NL Central teams since August 2013.
"That was his best stuff," Maddon said of Chapman, who had three wild pitches but struck out two. "Give the Pirates credit. Give Aroldis credit. The slider was really good, the fastball was 104 [mph] -- 104 was a base hit by [Francisco] Cervelli. I thought [Chapman] was really good. I think they turned that dial up a little bit. That at-bat by Mercer was outstanding."
Mercer was the last batter Chapman faced, and eight of the 11 pitches in the at-bat were 100-plus mph.
"It was really cool to watch him fight," Hurdle said of Mercer. "Spin, fastballs all over the place. We were able to work his count up over 30 [pitches]."
"This team is going to be really good for a long time. These kids -- I say kids because I'm old -- they're impressive and continue to dazzle. You can't really say 'surprise,' because we've come to expect all these great plays and the big knocks they're driving in. We're witnessing greatness with a lot of young kids now." -- Hammel, on the young Cubs
"I wasn't going to go down without a fight, for sure. What do you got to lose, right? He throws the hardest ball ever. Just battle and hope for the best." -- Mercer, on his game-ending, 11-pitch strikeout against Chapman
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
Vogelsong reached 10 years of Major League service time on Wednesday, a rare achievement and sign of veteran status. His teammates surprised him after the game with a cake and a round of applause.
The Cubs have a 2.68 ERA in 67 home games, the lowest home ERA in the Majors.
WHAT'S NEXT Pirates: After an off-day in Pittsburgh on Thursday, the Pirates will begin a stretch of 18 games in 17 days as they take on the Brewers at PNC Park on Friday. Rookie right-hander Jameson Taillon will start for the Bucs, looking to redeem himself after a rough outing in Milwaukee. First pitch is scheduled for 7:05 p.m. ET.
Cubs:Mike Montgomery will make his third start for the Cubs and third against an NL West team on Thursday, facing the Giants in the opener of a four-game series at Wrigley Field. The lefty may get another start as the Cubs are trying to decide whether to go with a six-man rotation once John Lackey returns from the disabled list. First pitch will be 7:05 p.m. CT. Outfielder Chris Coghlan is expected to be activated from the DL and join the team.