CHICAGO – After their 4-2 win Wednesday over the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Chicago Cubs stopped between the third-base line and their dugout to salute the fans.
They tipped their caps and waved, before retreating into the home locker room for the last time this season. And they know that when they play at Wrigley Field for the first time next year, the makeup of the team could be different.
That it was the end of the home season — one that saw the Cubs lose a franchise worst 50 times — didn't touch manager Dale Sveum until just before the first pitch, when his team threw autographed baseballs to fans.
"Since there's three games left, it kind of didn't hit you this is our last game at home until kind of when the game was starting," Sveum said.
Sveum, of course, might have managed his final home game with the Cubs. Though Sveum is under contract to return for 2014, team president Theo Epstein has said all jobs will be evaluated after another losing season, and the second-year manager is uncertain of his future.
Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs' young first baseman and one of the players considered a building block for the future, praised the coaching staff but understood that changes might be coming after the team's first last-place season since 2006.
"Everyone, from Dale to our bullpen coaches, up and down, they've been very good this year. We've had some fun," Rizzo said. "We hit our bumps (on) the road, but at the same time it's a business so it's out of any player's hands and the coaches' hands as well."
On Wednesday, Chicago was led by one player who likely has a spot in 2014, and another who has struggled to stick with one franchise.
Jake Arrieta (4-2) allowed one run and four hits for the Cubs in six innings.
Darnell McDonald doubled twice and launched a tiebreaking three-run homer in the sixth to knock playoff-bound Pittsburgh three games behind St. Louis for the NL Central lead with three games to go.
"We'll continue to battle, to go play. When we get the result we want, we put that one aside and try to go get another one," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "When we don't get the result we want, we wash that one and get ready for the next game."
Arrieta, acquired in July from Baltimore as part of a trade for Scott Feldman, will go into spring training next season with a spot in the Cubs' rotation. And he ended this year winning consecutive starts, allowing two runs in 13 innings.
"It was a playoff-caliber baseball game right there. Two teams ... one trying to win the division, if not, at worst finishing in that wild card. And the other team that's trying to finish on a high note, for a lot of reasons," Arrieta said. "Just a well-played game."
Arrieta credited a change of scenery for his success, and McDonald has had a few of those as well. He's played for six teams and joined the Cubs in August.
McDonald's home run off Francisco Liriano (16-8) was his first for Chicago, which locked up the victory when Kevin Gregg picked up his 33rd save in 38 chances.
McDonald also relished the chance to make up for a baserunning mistake in the fourth when he was tagged out at third on a grounder to short.
"That's exactly what I was thinking about when I was up there in that situation," McDonald said. "I owed my boys one and they were able to get three so it worked out."
It didn't do much for the Pirates, who missed a chance to take a two-game lead over the Reds for the wild-card lead heading into a three-game series this weekend in Cincinnati.
Chicago's final series in St. Louis doesn't have quite the same implications, but at least on Wednesday, Sveum and the Cubs had one final happy moment at home with their fans.
"That was a nice gesture. Obviously they've been out here and finished up with a good crowd over these three days, even though obviously it hasn't been a good season," Sveum said.
"Nice to see the fans come out, and especially win the last game, was nice."
Notes: The announced paid attendance was 26,171, giving the Cubs a season total of 2,642,682, the smallest since 1998 when they drew 2,623,194. ... The Cubs are off Thursday before opening their series Friday in St. Louis with LHP Travis Wood (9-11) facing RHP Lance Lynn (14-10).