Although the Chicago Cubs appear destined to be the road team in the NL wild-card game, they've still got to like their chances with Jake Arrieta their likely starter.
Arrieta can become the team's first 21-game winner in 44 years when the playoff-bound Cubs attempt to salvage Sunday's finale of a three-game series with a surging Pittsburgh Pirates club still chasing the division title.
Pittsburgh (95-60) has won eight straight - matching a season high set June 10-18 - to move a comfortable 5 1-2 games ahead of the Cubs for the first wild card and remain within striking distance of NL East-leading St. Louis, which visits PNC Park for three critical games beginning Monday. The streak is the Pirates' longest since a nine-game run June 20-30, 2013.
''We have to continue to play the way we're playing right now. We're not done yet," pitcher Francisco Liriano said.
The Pirates have pulled away behind a pair of standout pitching performances. Liriano struck out nine over 7 2-3 scoreless innings in Saturday's 4-0 win after ace Gerrit Cole limited the Cubs to one run in seven innings of Friday's 3-2 victory.
Jordy Mercer broke a scoreless tie Saturday with a three-run homer in the fifth to help Pittsburgh to a 10th win in its last 11 road games.
Chicago (89-66) still clinched its first playoff berth since 2008 when San Francisco lost at Oakland on Friday night, prompting the team to throw a postgame champagne celebration despite the loss.
''Our guys deserve this,'' president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. ''And frankly, it would have been out of personality not to celebrate in a big way despite the circumstances. They deserve it. I'm proud of them.''
Arrieta (20-6, 1.88 ERA) has certainly played a major role in the turnaround. The NL Cy Young Award candidate improved to 9-0 with a 0.48 ERA over a 10-start stretch after striking out 11 in a three-hit shutout of Milwaukee on Tuesday. The Cubs have won each of Arrieta's last 11 outings since being no-hit by Philadelphia's Cole Hamels July 25.
Arrieta is 14-1 with a 0.94 ERA while turning in 18 consecutive quality starts, including Chicago's 3-2, 12-inning win at Pittsburgh Sept. 16 in which he allowed one earned run in eight innings.
He's bidding for the highest win total by a Cubs hurler since Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins went 24-13 in 1971.
Arrieta is 5-1 with a 1.90 ERA in eight career meetings with Pittsburgh. The lone loss came against A.J. Burnett at Wrigley Field on May 17, with Arrieta surrendering one run in seven innings of a 3-0 defeat.
Burnett (9-5, 3.15) will oppose Arrieta for the third time this season and aims to build off his first victory since returning from a strained flexor tendon. The veteran right-hander allowed two runs over 5 2-3 innings in Monday's 9-3 decision over Colorado, his third start off the disabled list.
The 38-year-old limited Chicago to three hits and fanned seven in seven innings opposite Arrieta in May, improving to 6-1 with a 2.80 ERA in nine Wrigley Field starts. He had seven strikeouts while permitting two runs in 5 1-3 innings facing Arrieta earlier this month.
Burnett now encounters a slumping Cubs offense that's scored three times during a three-game skid and has just 11 hits in this series. Kris Bryant, though, has four of them and is 5 for 7 against Burnett. Starlin Castro is hitting .348 versus Burnett and is 10 for 20 with 10 RBI over his last eight games.