CHICAGO -- Gerrit Cole didn't have everything working for him on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, but the rookie right-hander made the pitches he needed to when it counted and helped the Pirates regain the top National League Wild Card spot with four regular-season games remaining.
Cole worked in and out of multiple jams over six innings and drove in two runs to lead the Bucs to an 8-2 win over the Cubs that moved them a game ahead of Cincinnati for the first Wild Card, as the Reds lost to the Mets. The Pirates also remained two games behind St. Louis in the NL Central with a Cardinals win over the Nationals.
Cole allowed two runs on seven hits, walking one and striking out six. He is 4-0 in September with a 1.69 ERA (six earned runs in 32 innings pitched).
"At times I felt really good, and at times I felt like I didn't know where [the ball] was going," Cole said of his outing. "I kind of lost the feel for the breaking ball for a couple innings and then got that back and lost the feel for the fastball. ... Fortunately the offense picked me up tonight, and I was able to keep the damage contained as much as I could."
The offense did pick Cole up, staking him to an early lead. And unlike the series opener in which they were only able to push two runs across, the scoring was plentiful for the Bucs on Tuesday.
Pittsburgh took an early lead in the second, when Pedro Alvarez -- who came into the contest hitting .178 (23-for-129) against left-handers -- hit an RBI double off Cubs southpaw starter Chris Rusin. One out later, Cole hit a two-run single to left to make it 3-0.
It was Cole's second multi-RBI game of the season, the first coming in his June 11 Major League debut against San Francisco.
"I was just trying to see it well and trying to use the middle of the field," Cole said. "I saw the breaking ball down a little bit, and I just kind of went down and got it."
Jordy Mercer hit his seventh home run of the season in the third to make it a 4-0 game.
"All my offspeed [stuff] was up, [and] my fastball was up," Rusin said. "I just couldn't keep the ball down today."
With the bases loaded in the fifth, Alvarez doubled off reliever Chang-Yong Lim on a ground ball past third base -- against Chicago's defensive shift -- driving in two more to make it 6-1.
The Bucs tacked on two more in the eighth on an RBI double by Starling Marte and an Andrew McCutchen RBI single.
"We did [a better job offensively]," McCutchen said. "We showed up today and scored some runs, so it was a good job for us."
Cole retired the Cubs in order in the first, but Chicago would threaten in three of the next five innings. In the second, with runners at the corners and one out, Cole got Brian Bogusevic to ground into an inning-ending double play.
The Cubs scored on an RBI single by Starlin Castro in the third, but with Castro on first, Cole induced another double-play ball, this one back to him for a 1-6-3 twin killing to end the frame.
Cole was in another jam in the sixth after back-to-back singles by Ryan Sweeney and Castro, followed by a Junior Lake walk that loaded the bases with nobody out. Anthony Rizzo hit a grounder to short, but Mercer couldn't get a clean handle out of his glove and threw to second too late to get the force as a run scored.
But Cole struck out Dioner Navarro and pinch-hitter Luis Valbuena, and got Donnie Murphy to fly out to end the threat.
"I've got to give a lot of credit to Russ," Cole said of his catcher, Russell Martin. "... Getting out of that sixth inning, minimizing that damage, was just a credit to him calling the pitches and blocking those curveballs in the dirt."
"[Cole] had to do some yard work in the third and sixth innings," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "... Once the bases were loaded [in the sixth] and he got back to two outs, those are the experiences for growth that you can only get by the opportunity to compete. To get the last fly ball out, he spilt the tank out there and again it shows there's fight in that young man. He doesn't have to show up with every weapon sharp to go out and pitch competitively and pitch good enough to win."
With his 10th win of the season, Cole became the first Pirates rookie to have at least 10 wins since Josh Fogg won 12 in 2002. He has also been charged with three earned runs or fewer in 18 of 19 starts this season.
Cole said that his outing Tuesday showed that even without his best stuff, he could compete. And especially if he's pitching in the postseason, the bottom line is winning.
"I may not have gotten all the results I wanted tonight, but the bottom line is that we won the game," Cole said. "It doesn't really matter how you get it done, it's just that you get it done. Going into the postseason, that's even more important. It's not about what your stuff looks like or how dominating you were. It's that you don't let them score more runs than you."
Looking ahead, Cole added that the Bucs are shooting for more than the top Wild Card spot that they currently hold.
"Today was business as usual," Cole said. "We've still got a shot to win the NL Central, and that's really what we're going for."
Manny Randhawa is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.