"It's a tough one to lose after coming back like that," said Cubs manager Dale Sveum, whose team rallied to tie the game in the eighth on pinch-hitter Donnie Murphy's RBI single.
Starling Marte smacked a tiebreaking solo home run with two outs in the ninth off Kevin Gregg to lift the Pirates to victory, but it took a close play at the plate to clinch it.
Marte had entered in the seventh as a defensive replacement in left field, and his at-bat in the ninth was his first of the game. He launched a 2-2 pitch from Gregg into the left-field bleachers. Marte's last two home runs have come off Gregg in the ninth; he also connected July 7 on a homer that tied the game.
The Cubs tried to answer in the ninth. With one out and one on, Nate Schierholtz reached on a fielder's choice, and Ryan Sweeney then singled into the gap in right-center. Schierholtz was thrown out at home on an 8-3-2 relay.
"I wasn't sure how close the play was going to be so I was kind of in between," Schierholtz said. "[Catcher Russell Martin] wasn't really blocking the plate, but he was kind of in front of it. I went the sliding route and didn't quite go into him as hard as I wanted to."
Schierholtz has played in a World Series, doing so with the Giants in 2010.
"It brought back some memories," Schierholtz said of watching the Braves, then the Pirates. "That's why we play this game. It's pretty exciting being in the postseason and I obviously want to get back there one day."
Jeff Samardzija, who also knows about championship seasons, having played football at Notre Dame, had talked to Schierholtz after Sunday's game.
"We mentioned to each other that's what it's all about, that's why you work in the offseason, that's why you work hard in Spring Training, that's why you want to get off to a fast start in April and May so you can have those moments," Samardzija said. "That's what you want. If you're just here just to play until next year, that's not what it's all about. You have to let it all hang out and you have to play for right now. That's what we need to do.
"I think we're getting there," Samardzija said, "but I think we need to get some things ironed out and get this team mentally in a spot where that's what we're shooting for, and we're not shooting to survive, but we're shooting to win and thrive out there."
Pirates starter Charlie Morton held the Cubs to three hits over seven scoreless innings. Trailing, 1-0, in the eighth, Brian Bogusevic singled off Mark Melancon, moved up on Darwin Barney's groundout and reached third on a wild pitch. Murphy then smacked a RBI single to left to tie the game.
The Pirates needed to beat the Cubs and have the Cardinals beat the Nationals to secure a playoff spot, and the Cards won, 4-3. Samardzija tried to delay having to watch their fun in his career-high 32nd start.
"The one thing Jeff has done is pitch well in big games and when there's some intensity out there," Sveum said. "It's always important to finish well, even if it's one start, or even if it's a hitter and the last 20 at-bats, you might have figured something out and it makes you feel a lot better going into the winter."
Samardzija served up Neil Walker's home run on a 1-1 fastball with one out in the first as the second baseman connected on his 14th of the season, matching a career high. It was one of five hits over six innings off the right-hander.
This was his fifth start against the Pirates this season, including Opening Day, when he threw eight shutout innings. That was his only win against Pittsburgh this year.
"They're aggressive," Samardzija said. "They've seen me a lot and know I throw a lot of fastballs early in the count. You could tell when one was in the zone, they were hacking. I threw a couple cutters early which kept them off balance. It's the fifth, sixth time I've faced them this year. You have to keep adjusting to what you're doing against them."
With one start remaining Sunday in the season finale against the Cardinals, Samardzija has 207 2/3 innings and 210 strikeouts, both career highs. He's in good company among other pitchers to reach 200/200, joining the Tigers' Max Scherzer, the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright, the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw, the Phillies' Cliff Lee and the White Sox's Chris Sale.
"His season is kind of wrapped up in a few innings as far as earned run average and not scoring runs for the wins," Sveum said of Samardzija, who notched his 18th quality start. "He's probably had as many shutdown innings as anybody in baseball."
The Cubs dropped to 30-49 at home, and have two games left at Wrigley Field. They've never lost 50 games at home in a single season. At least, they don't have to see anyone spray champagne in the final games. Are there any positives to be gained having to watch that on back-to-back days?
"When you're on the losing side, probably not," Schierholtz said. "We're just trying to win games, and a loss is a loss."