PITTSBURGH, SEPT. 25 -- The Pittsburgh Pirates gained another day if not another game on the New York Mets tonight, riding Doug Drabek's four-hitter and three innings' worth of an offensive outburst to a 5-3 victory over the Chicago Cubs that reduced their magic number for their first National League East title since 1979 to six.
And, although seven Pittsburgh players could be seen watching the New York-Montreal game on the giant scoreboard television screen at Three Rivers Stadium while they took the field for the ninth inning, the Pirates seemed to finally grasp that the only thing standing between them and the postseason is the final eight games.
"I guess you couldn't tell it from looking at us, but our scoreboard-watching days are over," said center fielder Andy Van Slyke, whose two hits and two RBI included a seventh-inning double off left-handed reliever Mitch Williams that broke a 3-3 tie. "We're in control of our fate, and that's a good feeling. . . . It's taken us a while to get used to that. I still don't think we realize it fully."
The second-place Mets defeated the Expos to remain three games behind the Pirates (89-65) with eight to play. The Mets close the regular season with a three-game series here beginning Monday, but the Pirates seemed confident in their boisterous clubhouse that they will be able to make those matchups meaningless.
"We have from now until Sunday to play championship baseball and get the lead up to four games before they get here," said Bobby Bonilla, who completed the Pirates' rally from an early three-run deficit with a bloop single for the game's final run. "If we can do that, we can save ourselves a lot of worries next week."
In front of a crowd of 21,644 that established a Pirates single-season attendance record, 1,870,640, Drabek surrendered two first-inning runs, then a solo home run to Shawon Dunston leading off the second to put Pittsburgh in a 3-0 hole. From there, Drabek toughened considerably -- retiring 22 of the next 25 hitters he faced, 15 of them in a row before a two-out walk to Andre Dawson in the ninth.
Aided by Mark Grace being caught stealing and a double play off the bat of Dunston, Drabek -- who has lost twice in his past 17 starts -- faced those 25 batters to get the final 24 outs. He improved to 21-6, the first Pirates pitcher since Bob Friend in 1958 to surpass 20 wins.
Drabek even contributed two hits and two runs to the Pirates' effort. They scored two runs off starter Steve Wilson (4-9) in the fifth, got Jeff King's homer to tie the game at 3 in the sixth, then buried Wilson, Bill Long and Williams in the seventh.
Even Manager Jim Leyland was moved toward celebration -- at least as far as he will go.
"This doesn't guarantee you anything but a win tonight," he said. "Tomorrow is a whole new day and this is already history. . . . But this night was golden."
The Pirates appear to have reached the point of believing they can't lose the division.
When Pittsburgh lost six straight games during a 10-day road trip that ended last week, the Mets pulled to within 1 1/2 games -- but could get no closer. New York was at home for the same 10 days, but gained only one game in that stretch. The Pirates have won five of seven since their losing skid, while the Mets continue to stumble.
"It's hard to even imagine finishing second anymore," Van Slyke said. "We've withstood too much. . . . The New Yorkers had their chance and blew it. We don't plan on giving them another chance."
The Pirates used an off day Monday to arrange matters neatly for the final push. Leyland set his starting rotation so that three left-handers will pitch against the Mets, who have been terrorized by lefties this year.
And Drabek, who conceded he has been "out of sync on the mound" lately -- and bothered by a sore, blistered foot that may have contributed to his slow start tonight -- got an extra day of rest before his 32nd start.
The 28-year-old right-hander outwits rather than overwhelms. His best fastball travels only about 85 miles per hour, but he mixes his pitches cleverly and usually finds good locations. The formula has made him the NL's leading winner and a strong candidate for the Cy Young Award.
"If he wins it, I get half," said Van Slyke, who's hitting .405 with 27 RBI in 22 games behind Drabek this season. "That guy's living off me."
"I just hung in there and battled all night," Drabek said. "I knew I was close to an early shower there, but I wasn't going to go down without a fight."