Wednesday night's NL wild-card game promises an all-time pitcher's duel between the Pirates' Gerrit Cole and the Cubs' Jake Arrieta.
Status: The fourth National League wild-card game is the third in a row to be hosted by the Pirates at PNC Park. In 2013, Pittsburgh took part in postseason baseball for the first time in 21 years and beat the Reds, 6–2, with the home crowd rattling Cincinnati starter Johnny Cueto, who gave up four runs in just 3 1/2 innings of work. Last year, the Pirates ran into the buzzsaw of postseason cyborg Madison Bumgarner, who shut them out on four hits in an 8–0 win. The postseason is no longer a novelty in Pittsburgh, and having won 98 games, the second most in the majors this season and as many as any other Pirates team since 1909, the Bucs will not be satisfied with a one-and-done performance.
The Cubs, meanwhile, are appearing in their first postseason since 2008, having arrived a year ahead of schedule according to most prognostications. Chicago didn’t back into this game, however. The team's 97 wins were the third-most in the majors this year; no Cubs team has won more since the 1935 squad that lost to the Tigers in the World Series. The Cubs might be more satisfied with simply having made it this far, but their expectations of advancing past this game should be every bit as great, if not moreso.
Matchups: The 800-pound gorilla in this game is Arrieta, who is in the middle of one of the most dominant stretches of pitching in major league history. Arrieta enters this game with an active 22-inning scoreless streak and has not allowed a run in his last three starts, including one against the Pirates in which he held them to two base runners (Gregory Polanco on a single and Andrew McCutchen on a hit-by-pitch) and struck out nine over seven innings. The last run Arrieta allowed, in fact, came in Pittsburgh back on Sept. 16; he gave up two runs, one earned, over eight frames.
Arrieta has given up a run in just four of his last dozen starts, all of which lasted at least six innings, and has allowed an earned run in just three of those games, going 11–0 with a 0.41 ERA over that span. The Cubs have won Arrieta’s last 13 starts and 17 of his last 18, and over his last 20 starts, he has gone 16–1 with a 0.86 ERA, averaging 7 1/3 innings per start and a strikeout per inning over that stretch. He is as close to unbeatable as a pitcher can get right now, and he has been that good against the Pirates all season, going 3–1 with a 0.75 ERA in five starts against them, three of which have come in Pittsburgh. By game score, his worst start against the Pirates was a 68 in that aforementioned game on Sept. 16.
Unsurprisingly, McCutchen is the Pirate who has the most success against Arrieta this year, going 4-for-12 with a double and two walks. Second best is Neil Walker, who has gone 3-for-13 with a double and a walk for a .231/.286/.308 line. No one else on the team is above the Mendoza line against Arrieta this season, and the rest of the Pirates have combined for two walks (to Pedro Alvarez) and one extra-base hit (a Josh Harrison double) against him.
The pressure is thus on the 25-year-old Cole to keep his team in this game. He’s certainly capable of doing it. Cole finished fourth in the NL with a 148 ERA+ and went 4–0 with a 2.36 ERA over his final five starts of the regular season, all of them Pirates wins and two of them coming against the Cubs. On the season, Cole posted a 2.14 ERA in four starts against Chicago, striking out 32 men against just four walks in 25 1/3 innings and posting a WHIP of just 0.95. For all of their power (the Cubs had nine players in double digits in home runs this year), the only Cubs regular with an extra-base hit against Cole at any point in his career is Anthony Rizzo, who doubled off him in 2013.
If Cole can match Arrieta and get his team into the Cubs’ bullpen with the game tied, the advantage would swing to Pittsburgh, which not only has last licks, but also boasts the superior relief corps. The Pirates’ 2.67 bullpen ERA was the best in the majors this season, and their 14 blown saves were tied for the fewest in the NL. The seven relievers on Pittsburgh’s active roster for this game (not counting backup starter Francisco Liriano) combined for a 2.53 ERA this year, and the top four men in that group—closer Mark Melancon, deadline acquisition Joakim Soria, lefty Tony Watson and workhorse Jared Hughes—combined for a 2.12 mark. With Liriano available for extra innings, the Pirates' bullpen could outlast its Chicago counterpart if Cole can negate Arrieta.
A different kind of trade: As improved as the Blue Jays, Mets and Rangers were over the final two months of the regular season, only Toronto saw a bigger jump in winning percentage over the last two months of the season compared to the first four months than the Cubs. Chicago won at a .539 clip through the end of July, then went 42–18 (.700) from Aug. 1 through the end of the season, the best record in baseball over that span.
Arrieta was a huge part of that, but another was manager Joe Maddon’s decision to take the starting shortstop job away from the slumping Starlin Castro in early August and give it to slick-fielding rookie Addison Russell, who had spent most of the first half at second base. After a brief time on the bench, Castro re-emerged as the team’s regular second baseman and has been among the team’s hottest hitters ever since, hitting .367/.391/.651 over his last 35 games. Though not to the same degree, Russell has also been more productive since returning to his natural position.
As a result, Castro and Russell, who combined to hit .236/.271/.304 with 12 home runs in 775 plate appearances prior to the change, have hit .300/.343/.510 with 12 more homers in 326 PA since Russell was installed at shortstop on Aug. 7. Not even trading for Troy Tulowitzki would have improved the Cubs’ middle infield production as dramatically.
Lineups: The Pirates aren’t expected to do anything unusual with their starting lineup, but Cubs skipper Joe Maddon is always good for a few surprises. Pre-game speculation has been that Tommy La Stella could start at third base, pushing Kris Bryant to the outfield. The lefty-hitting La Stella is the only Cub to collect an extra-base hit off Cole this season, doubling off him on Sept. 15, but that double is La Stella’s only hit against the Pirates’ young ace in six career plate appearances. That doesn’t seem like sufficient reason put multiple players out of position.
La Stella, who spent most of the year on the disabled list with an oblique strain, has a career OPS+ of 87 and has made all of six starts at third base in the major leagues; Bryant has made just ten starts in the outfield, a position he didn’t play at all in the minors. Arrieta has become an extreme ground-ball pitcher this year and has had jaw-dropping success with Bryant playing the hot corner behind him. Inserting La Stella smacks of overthinking things and could have a domino effect in the lineup, either by forcing another lefty—Chris Coghlan or Kyle Schwarber—to the bench, or by taking a spot away from hot-hitting righty Castro in favor of the lefty Coghlan, who has made 12 major league starts at the keystone in his seven-year career, thereby downgrading the infield defense.
Speaking of Schwarber: After hitting .311/.407/.613 with 10 home runs in his first 133 major league plate appearances, the 22-year-old rookie has hit just .177/.301/.354 with six home runs in his last 133. Like most of the Cubs' young hitting prospects, Schwarber has had an extreme strikeout rate, whiffing in 28% of his major league plate appearances. If anyone is going to sit, the defensively-challenged Schwarber would seem like the logical choice, though given Arrieta’s ground-ball tendencies and Schwarber’s ability to change the game with a single swing (he leads the team in homers per plate appearance with 16 in a mere 273 PA), you can understand the temptation to keep him in the lineup.
Update: La Stella is indeed starting at third base with Bryant in left, Schwarber in right and Castro at second, sending Coghlan to the bench. Not only that, but La Stella is also batting fifth, between Rizzo and Castro in Maddon’s typical order. As for the Pirates, the only surprise in their lineup is that Sean Rodriguez has drawn the start at first base over Alvarez, a move which improves Pittsburgh’s defense in what is expected to be a low-scoring game. It also takes one of just three lefty bats out of the lineup in favor of an inferior righthanded one against the righthanded Arrieta, but he has had a reverse split this year, holding lefties to a .159/.221/.228 line compared to a .207/.248/.309 line for righties.
Rosters: Both teams are carrying a pinch-running specialist for this game, with the Pirates including rookie Keon Broxton and the Cubs bringing veteran Quintin Berry. The Pirates are also carrying a third catcher in Elias Diaz. As mentioned above, Liriano will be in Pittsburgh's bullpen as a potential long reliever should the game go into extra innings; Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks are on the Cubs’ roster in a similar role.
The biggest surprise on either roster is that Neil Ramirez, who dominated out of the Chicago 'pen as a rookie last year, did not make Maddon’s cut. Ramirez spent most of 2015 on the disabled list with shoulder and abdominal injuries but looked good in six appearances in late September. Reclamation projects Trevor Cahill and Fernando Rodney both made the roster ahead of Ramirez, while Clayton Richard will serve as the team’s second lefty behind Travis Wood.