CHICAGO -- A win Wednesday afternoon, when their best pitcher faced the division's worst team, would have made it easy for the Pirates.
The Bucs don't do easy. They haven't all season and weren't about to start in Game No. 159.
Thus Chicago right-hander Jake Arrieta frustrated them for six innings, until Darnell McDonald could break up his duel with Francisco Liriano with a three-run homer in the sixth, and the Cubs knocked off the Pirates, 4-2, at Wrigley Field.
"Nothing new. This is how our season has played out," said manager Clint Hurdle, referring both to the offensive breakdowns that contributed to Wednesday's loss, and to the challenge it teed up.
The loss means the Pirates can do no better than tie for the National League Central title, making all but certain their participation in Tuesday's won-or-done Wild Card Game. It also kept at one Pittsburgh's edge over the Reds for the NL's top Wild Card spot -- and the home privilege that goes with it.
A Pittsburgh win Wednesday would have forced the Reds to sweep the Bucs in their series this weekend in Cincinnati. Now, it's a best-of-three for that home-field edge.
"We'll try to win a couple, and go from there," Andrew McCutchen said. "I'm happy just to have the opportunity; it's awesome. I remember at the beginning of the season, no one gave us a chance, and now look where we are. I'm just happy we can be there."
Cincinnati had lost to the Mets in the early stages of this game. A win would have given Pittsburgh a two-game lead over the Reds, meaning they would have needed to win only one of three games this weekend at Great American Ball Park to host the Wild Card Game.
The one-game lead the Pirates will take into Cincinnati means nothing. They will still have to win the series -- just as if the teams went into it tied -- to claim home field.
The reason: If the Reds take two of three to create a final tie in the Wild Card standings, the home field would be theirs based on head-to-head play; the teams stand 8-8 with the three games to go.
"We'll be ready to hit the gas pedal again on Friday," Hurdle promised.
The Pirates' slimmest chance of still tying the Cardinals and forcing a one-game playoff for the division title now depend on these same Cubs, who will end their season with three games in St. Louis. The Bucs have one reason to hope for more help from them than they got from the Nationals, whose fire was clearly doused by their elimination loss in the Monday opener of their set against the Cardinals:
Cubs-Cards is a deep-trenched rivalry, in which emotions can take precedence over standings. So have at 'em.
"We still have three games left and obviously it's not looking good for ... Pittsburgh right now," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said. "but hopefully we can help them out and win Friday and see what happens the next two days."
Watching Liriano and Arrieta go at it was like watching two bullfighters dueling atop a high wire. This being the Windy City, a gust was sure to topple someone at some point -- and McDonald's blow did it for Liriano.
"Liriano's tough," McDonald said. "Guys getting some hits early, when you get hits it breeds confidence in the lineup. You can't make many mistakes against good teams and good pitchers like that. Fortunately, we were able to overcome mistakes and get the win."
"I tried to come in on him [with a fastball], and it stayed over the plate," Liriano said. "He saw the ball great all day."
McDonald already had a pair of doubles off Liriano before the key swing -- which was enough to raise Liriano's ERA over the 3.00 mark (3.02) for the first time all season. The lefty went winless in his last three starts (he'll most likely next be seen in the Wild Card game) and remained with one win in five September starts.
By the time McDonald, who has considerable big league experience but hit his first homer of this season since his call up from Triple-A, broke Liriano, he had bent so much he looked like a pretzel.
"He wasn't able to get a ball where he wanted to to McDonald," said Hurdle who confidently stayed with Liriano even after a leadoff single by Donnie Murphy and a walk to Junior Lake had the lefty back in trouble. "The fifth was his best [and only three up, three down] inning, and he was in a good place to push through the sixth.
"There's never a time I don't like Frank on the mound. But you always hate to go get a guy after he gives up runs. That's the walk of shame for a manager," added Hurdle, who did take that walk after McDonald crossed the plate. "That's on me."
Liriano also gave a new interpretation to "stretch" drive. Through four innings, he faced 18 men -- working out of the stretch to 12 of them. When you remember that four of the other six led off innings, you get a good idea of just how much constant trouble he was in.
Meanwhile, the Pirates didn't get as many men on base, but everyone they did, reached scoring position. Six of the first seven remained there -- only a bases-loaded walk drawn by Justin Morneau in the third going against the trend.
The Bucs' 1-for-13 effort with men in scoring position was only a partial reflection of their missed opportunities. Hurdle was most bothered by the three times the Pirates had a man on third base with less than two outs -- and left him there.
"We make three good outs, it's a 4-4 game in the ninth," the manager said. "Runners on third, less than two outs ... been one of our challenges throughout the season. Tough to continue to pitch without a safety net."
Safety net would be easy. The Bucs don't do that.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.