David Ross took a cutter right down the middle to begin his final at-bat of the night, and he didn’t care.
The 39-year-old catcher, whose sixth inning home run was the difference in the Cubs’ 4-3 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates Saturday night at Wrigley Field, was soaking in the moment of a raucous crowd of 41,424 cheering for him and singing “Forever Young,” his at-bat song.
“I took the first pitch because I wasn’t concentrating,” Ross said. “I was in the crowd. When you get that feeling in this game, you have to take it in.”
The party continued on Clark and Addison thanks to a combination of simple and spectacular plays from Ross and third baseman Javier Baez, who made a highlight-reel defensive play and even more impressive slide into second base to help push the Cubs to their seventh win in eight games against the Pirates in 2016.
The Cubs fell behind 3-1 after three and a half innings, with Jon Lester giving up a leadoff home run to Jordy Mercer in the first inning and hitting the Pirates shortstop with the bases loaded in the fourth (Andrew McCutchen’s third inning RBI single brought home the Pirate’s third run). Lester, who hadn’t allowed more than two runs in a start since May 21, only lasted six innings, allowing those three runs on seven hits with three walks and seven strikeouts.
Baez sparked the comeback, though, with a mesmerizing slide to avoid a tag at second base after it appeared Pirates left-hander Jonathon Niese had him picked off. After a review, Baez was ruled safe on a play that’ll probably get played over and over again in 2016 season highlight montages.
“If the ball beats me, I’m not going to give up and just let him tag me,” Baez said.
“I don’t understand it, because mine would be a belly roll, probably,” the self-deprecating Ross said. “If I tried to do that, something would dislocate. So I have no idea.”
Baez followed that slide by stealing third base, and then came home to score on Ross’ successful safety squeeze.
“You cannot waste Javy’s trip around the bases right there,” Maddon said of his thinking to call for the bunt. “… Seriously, that’s a great trip around the bases.”
Baez made a spectacular play on a sharp ball off the bat of Sean Rodriguez to begin the sixth, firing a strong throw from his knees to retire the Pirates right fielder. He made a few other difficult plays charging in at third base, too, that were significant in a one-run ballgame.
“Javy amazes me every time he plays, whether it’s left field, third, second, short, wherever he is on the diamond he seems to always impact the game,” Lester said.
Added Ross: “He’s such a great athlete and maybe one of the best defensive players I’ve ever played with.”
Kris Bryant’s mammoth 448-foot home run in the fifth inning was the equalizer, which set up Ross’ go-ahead blast off Niese in the sixth. Ross, who will retire after the season, is hitting a healthy .245/.351/.447 with five home runs this season.
“That was a big momentum change,” Lester said of Ross’ homer. “Little bit of a grinder tonight. That was big for him personally and picking me up, that’s huge.”
Baez was nine years old when Ross made his major league debut in 2002. While both are on the more extreme ends of the age spectrum, their key involvement in Saturday’s win can be viewed as a microcosm for the success this team has had this year.
It’s been a combination of youngsters and veterans that’s worked so well to create significant distance — 11 1/2 games ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals and 14 ahead of the Pirates through 66 games — between the Cubs and the rest of the division.
“I don’t think the guys are really concerned about that,” Lester said. “We’re just trying to worry about us and who we’re playing either tonight or tomorrow. I think that’s what makes us really good is we live in the moment.”