NL aces face off for right to face Cardinals in NLDS
It's a shame that the Cubs and Pirates are only playing a one game, winner-take-all Wild Card matchup instead of the seven-game series this NL Central rivalry deserves. But make no mistake, this game is going to be must-watch television.
The Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs are simply the victims of being in the best division in baseball, probably ever. For the first time since divisions were created in 1969 the three best teams in MLB are all in the same division, the NL Central. Had the Pirates or Cubs been in any other division this season, each team would have bypassed the Wild Card game and held home-field advantage throughout the Division Series, at minimum. Alas, that is not the way the game is played in 2015, and sometimes baseball isn’t fair.
The Pirates' resurgence over the past three years has been something to behold. Pittsburgh went from being one of the worst franchises in sports over the past 20 years, to being a model for success the past several seasons. The Pirates have invested in their farm system and acquired reliable veterans to mix with their young core of talent and the results have been a fantastic baseball product. This marks the third straight year that the Pirates have hosted the NL Wild Card game. In 2013 they beat the Reds 6-2, and last year fell to Madison Bumgarner’s gem and the eventual World Series champions, the San Francisco Giants.
The Cubs are the darlings of the baseball world. New manager Joe Maddon came to Chicago with a winning attitude, claiming that he was managing a Cubs team that he expected to compete for a postseason bid. Maddon and the Cubs delivered, and then some. The young Cubs, highlighted by a youth movement like baseball hasn't seen before, ended the regular season with 97 wins and the third-best record in baseball. Like the Pirates, the Cubs built their core through their farm system and a series of moves to acquire reliable veteran players who have been productive. The Cubs haven’t been to the postseason since being swept by the Dodgers in the 2008 NLDS, which followed getting swept by the Diamondbacks in the '07 NLDS. The Cubs have not won a playoff game since... dare I say it, The Bartman Game in the 2003 NLCS.
Chicago at Pittsburgh
First Pitch: 8:08 p.m. ET (Wednesday)
Matchup: RH Jake Arrieta (22-6, 1.77 ERA) vs. RH Gerrit Cole (19-8, 2.60 ERA)
Three Things to Watch
1. Battles of the Aces
Don’t expect a lot of runs to be scored in this one. The Cubs’ Jake Arrieta very well could be this year’s NL Cy Young Award winner, and rightfully so. Arrieta leads baseball in wins (22), hits per nine innings (5.895 H/9) and batting average against (.188), and is second in ERA (1.77) and WHIP (0.86). Arrieta trails on Zack Greinke in the NL in WAR for pitchers (8.6, Baseball-Reference.com) and FIP (2.35). Arrieta has been essentially unhittable in the second half of the season, posting a 0.75 ERA since the All-Star break and a 0.39 ERA in the last month, which doesn't include his Aug. 30 no-hitter against the Dodgers. In five starts against the Pirates, Arrieta went 3-1 with a 0.75 ERA, along with a .151 batting average against and 33 strikeouts, while giving up just four runs over 36 innings. In his last start against the Bucs on Sept. 27, Arrieta threw a one-hit gem, with nine strikeouts, no walks and no runs over seven innings.
Taking the mound for the Pirates is their 25-year- old ace, Gerrit Cole. Had it not been for Arrieta, Greinke, and Clayton Kershaw, Cole would be the front-runner for NL Cy Young. This season Cole has posted 19 wins, a 2.60 ERA and a 1.091 WHIP, not bad for a guy in just his third season in The Show. Even though the Cubs have won 11 of of the 19 games against the Pirates this season, Cole has fared well against the North Siders, posting a 2-1 record and a .225 batting average against, with 32 strikeouts while surrendering only eight runs (6 ER) in four starts. Cole had one of his best outings of the season when he faced the Cubs on Sept. 25 when he gave up just one run and four hits with eight strikeouts in seven innings.
Wednesday night is shaping up to be a pitcher's duel for the ages.
2. Joe Maddon’s Lineup Card
Maddon has a good, but big problem. The good is that Maddon has probably the best lineup depth in all of baseball. The problem is, how does he use that depth in the do-or-die Wild Card game? Maddon’s young Cubs have been selfless when it comes to playing time and position changes this season. Cubs rookies and veterans alike have played all over the field.
Kris Bryant has played most of his time at third, but also has seen a fair amount of time in all three outfield positions, and he even started a game at first base. Kyle Schwarber has played 41 games in left field, four games in right field, and caught 21 games. Addison Russell started the first half of the season at second base before winning the everyday shortstop spot from struggling former All-Star Starlin Castro.
Castro could be the key to the Cubs' offensive success. The 25-year-old veteran is hitting .329/.368/.443 against the Pirates this season, better than any other Cub. After struggling mightily for most of the season, Castro has caught fire in the last two months. Since being removed as the everyday shortstop, Castro has taken his reduced role with great class and professionalism, and his play has improved dramatically. After hitting just .247/.288/.328 in the first half, Catro has hit .335/.362/.555 since Aug. 1 with 14 doubles, 25 RBIs, and an OPS of .917.
In addition to Castro, who will likely start at second with Russell at short, is how and when Maddon will use Jorge Soler, Javier Baez and Schwarber. Soler started in right field most of the season while veteran Chris Coghlan started in left field for 87 games. Schwarber has seen most of his playing time come in the outfield. Once Soler went on the DL after the All-Star break, Schwarber started 36 games in left field and 15 as a catcher.
My guess is that Maddon will start with Baez, who can play any infield position well, and Soler on the bench, but use them situationally both offensively and defensively as the game progresses. Coghlan likely gets the start in right field with Schwarber in left, while Miguel Montero starts behind the plate, and Bryant at his regular position at third. But don’t be surprised if Maddon puts together a more abstract lineup to give opposing manager Clint Hurdle something to think about in this winner-take-all showdown.
3. Bullpen Poker
Since this is a one-game playoff, both managers must be willing to use their bullpens in unorthodox ways. Both teams will probably keep just one starter on the active roster, creating additional spots for bench players or additional arms. Each manager has to be expecting their respective starter to at least go seven innings in hopes that the back-end rotation guys can seal the deal. But if either team’s bats get hot early, do Maddon and Hurdle go to their traditional bullpen arms early, or do they call on their No. 2 starters in Jon Lester and Francisco Liriano?
The Cubs and Pirates have very similar bullpens, two of the best in the National League. But the Pirates have a slight edge when it comes to the back end with Tony Watson (1.91 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 41 holds) and closer Mark Melancon (2.23 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 51 saves). But the Cubs' bullpen, which was somewhat shaky early in the season, has become a strength for Maddon. Travis Wood and Justin Grimm have been as reliable as any middle relievers in the division this season, while Pedro Strop (2.91 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 28 holds) and Hector Rondon (1.67 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 30 saves) have been lights out in the second half.
With both starting pitchers being top-notch all season long and runs surely to be scarce, one swing of the bat could make the difference. The Cubs' offense is loaded from top to bottom with potential power threats, so pitching around any one player could prove costly.
Cole’s development as an ace has been a fantastic story this season, but Arrieta’s stuff right now is almost unfair to hitters, only giving up four earned runs since Aug. 1. As ESPN’s Buster Olney said, “It’s not a question if we can beat this pitcher, it literally is, can we score against this pitcher?”
Prediction: Cubs 3, Pirates 1
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. An avid baseball fan, Rose also takes time to do some play-by-play work for the radio broadcasts of Middle Tennessee State Blue Raider baseball games. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.
(Jake Arrieta photo courtesy of Getty Images)