CHICAGO -- Even though it was Dioner Navarro's sacrifice fly in the bottom of the 11th that sealed the Cubs' 4-3 walk-off win over the Pirates, Sunday's rubber match was, for better or worse, a day for the bullpen.
Closer Kevin Gregg allowed a two-out, two-strike, game-tying home run to Pirates left fielder Starling Marte, but six relievers combined to throw seven innings and allow just two runs before that to keep the game close enough for the offense to mount a threat.
"It was not what the doctor ordered ... but they did a great job," manager Dale Sveum said of his bullpen. "To give up two [runs] in seven innings is doing a great job."
Sveum knew he'd be relying on his relief corps heading into the game. He set a cap of 65 to 70 pitches on starter Carlos Villanueva, as the right-hander was making his first start since May 14 and hadn't been fully stretched out.
Villanueva has been a swing man between the rotation and the bullpen, or a "soldier" as he called it, over his entire seven-year career. After surrendering seven runs in five innings in that May 14 start, he became one of the most reliable arms in an inconsistent Cubs bullpen. That's why it was so fitting that he would make his return to the rotation on a signature day for Chicago's relievers. He'd only been reinserted as a starter after the Scott Feldman trade on Tuesday opened a spot for him, though he'd already settled into his new role with his bullpen brethren.
"You always don't dwell too much about it, because I had to pitch out of the bullpen," Villanueva said of thoughts of returning to the rotation. "I threw in some key situations out of the bullpen. I threw in the eighth inning a couple of times. It's in the back of the mind, but you've got to get people out whenever you put me in."
Because of the length of Sunday's game, Villanueva's four-inning effort even felt like a relief outing. He threw 69 pitches but only surrendered one run, in the fourth, on back-to-back doubles by outfielders Jose Tabata and Andrew McCutchen. He passed the reins to his comrades in the 'pen after striking out five and allowing just three hits to remain relatively unscathed.
"It was a great job, great effort today," Villanueva said.
The real showdown came in the ninth, after Gregg quickly dispatched of Pittsburgh shortstop Jordy Mercer and pinch-hitter Travis Snider, striking them both out swinging. Then Marte stepped up to the plate, and Gregg made a pitch he thought was located well. But with the wind blowing out, the ball had enough lift to make it into the left-field bleachers.
"Usually, I try to get a base hit, maybe steal a base, but in that situation, yes, I'm trying to hit a home run, sure," Marte said. "He threw a two-seamer more out that I could extend on, and I was able to hit it for a home run."
After the homer, Gregg rallied to escape the inning, and right-hander Matt Guerrier came in to throw two scoreless frames for the second day in a row.
"[Guerrier] was very efficient, and obviously, we were doing to do everything we could to stay away from him," Sveum said. "He [won't be available] tomorrow."
Guerrier's outing preserved the lead long enough for sluggers Anthony Rizzo and Alfonso Soriano to lead off the bottom of the 11th with consecutive singles. Pirates catcher Russell Martin misfired on an attempt to pick off Rizzo at second, and both runners advanced. Pittsburgh reliever Bryan Morris walked the bases loaded for pinch-hitter Navarro, who delivered a sac fly to drive in Rizzo from third, sending the home team onto the field in celebration.
"Navarro came off the bench after waiting four hours and came up huge for us," said outfielder Scott Hairston, who hit a pinch-hit home run of his own in the bottom of the seventh to give his team a one-run lead. "Throughout the year we're going to remember this and build on this. To win two out of three against a team like Pittsburgh, you have to feel good about that."
Right-hander Hector Rondon had allowed Pittsburgh to tie the score at 2 in the top of the fifth on Tabata's second double of the game, but he worked out of a major jam in the sixth with runners on second and third and one out. Rondon induced a ground ball to shortstop Starlin Castro, who threw home to get Pittsburgh third baseman Pedro Alvarez in a rundown, and struck out pinch-hitter Gaby Sanchez in the next at-bat to end the threat.
The Cubs mounted an early opportunity off Pirates right-hander A.J. Burnett, who returned to his starting role on Sunday after sitting out for an extended period with a strained right calf. Burnett hadn't pitched since June 8 but was deemed ready to return to the Major Leagues without a rehab start by Pirates manager Clint Hurdle.
The Cubs had runners at the corners and two outs in the second, giving Burnett his first test in a stressful game situation. Catcher Welington Castillo smacked a line drive to short, but Mercer made the catch to end the inning.
Chicago finally got to Burnett in the third. Villanueva led off the inning with a single, and Castro followed with a double to advance runners to second and third and once again put the pressure on Burnett. This time the offense came through, knocking in Villanueva with a little help from a fielding error by Pittsburgh first baseman Garrett Jones. Soriano then knocked in his 14th run in his last nine games on a sacrifice fly. Burnett's day ended after five innings, during which he allowed just one earned run on three hits.
Pittsburgh entered play on Sunday with the second-best bullpen ERA in the National League, at 2.90. That success had been the catalyst in helping them produce the best record in baseball. But on Sunday it was the Cubs' bullpen that came through, relying on such arms as Pedro Strop, Blake Parker and Guerrier to prevent a big inning from Pittsburgh long enough for their offense to threaten.
"We know we have a better team than our record shows," Villanueva said. "Sometimes that's something that you have to say, because you're not going to be negative out there. But we do really believe that when we look up and down this roster."
Ethan Asofsky is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.