You have to feel a little sorry for the Pittsburgh Pirates. They won 98 games, second-most in the majors, but for the third straight season they had to play the lose-or-go-home wild-card game. Last year, they faced Madison Bumgarner, who shut them out on the way to his historic postseason run of dominance. On Wednesday, they had to face Jake Arrieta of the Chicago Cubs, a pitcher entering the postseason on a historic regular-season run of dominance never seen before. It was only the fifth time two teams with 97-plus wins met before a league championship series. Somebody was going to go home too soon.
Five key moments ...
1. Jake Arrieta gets Starling Marte to ground into a double play.
The Cubs led 4-0 entering the bottom of the sixth inning -- more on that -- and Arrieta had cruised through five innings, throwing just 60 pitches, 44 for strikes, and had allowed just one base hit. He did receive some help in the bottom of the fifth when, with Francisco Cervelli on base after getting nicked by a pitch, plate umpire Jeff Nelson rung up Jordy Mercer and Pedro Alvarez on sliders that were out of the strike zone. Nelson is an ump who tends to call more strikes on left-handed batters on inside pitches, not outside. Two bad breaks for the Pirates, and you're not going to beat Arrieta when he's getting help from the umpire.
The Pirates finally got some baserunners in the sixth inning. Travis Snider lined a pinch-hit single to right field. Gregory Polanco lined a ball to the drawn-in Kris Bryant, who deflected the ball into the air and made the catch. After Arrieta hit Josh Harrison, Andrew McCutchen reached to load the bases when Addison Russell bobbled his hard-hit grounder. That brought up Starling Marte with the crowd rocking PNC Park. Arrieta chunked a slider in the dirt on the first pitch to Marte. The crowd could smell blood. Marte then hit a 95-mph fastball hard on the ground -- but right to Russell, who started the 6-4-3 double play. That was the game. If Marte's hit goes through, it probably scores two runs, and who knows what happens. But it didn't.
Arrieta ended up going the distance, throwing a four-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts, his 10th start in his past 13 in which he hasn't allowed a run. He has now thrown 31 consecutive scoreless innings, during which he has allowed just 10 hits. He has a bunch of other mind-blowing statistics that we've all seen in recent days. His next start will be Game 3 of the division series against the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field. I wish I was going to be there.
Jake Arrieta's body type is best described as Inverse Bartolo.— DJ Gallo (@DJGalloEtc) October 8, 2015
Catcher framing or 'presentation' should matter inside the buffer zone. Not on pitches way off. Good catching doesn't excuse bad umpiring— Brandon McCarthy (@BMcCarthy32) October 8, 2015
2. Kyle Schwarber hits one to Lake Michigan.
OK, maybe just to the Allegheny. In his final 17 regular-season games, Schwarber had hit .179/.333/.196 with no home runs, one double, no RBIs and 16 strikeouts. He dumped an RBI single into left field in the first inning and then unloaded on a 2-1 slider from Gerrit Cole in the third inning for a 3-0 lead.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon made some interesting lineup choices, going with bats over gloves. He stuck with Schwarber despite the late-season struggles, but played him in right field, where he had seen just 14 innings all season. Maddon put Kris Bryant in left field and started Tommy La Stella at third, getting a lefty contact hitter in there against Cole, even though Bryant had started just 10 games in the outfield and La Stella had just 81 innings at third in his pro career. That's how good Arrieta is: Maddon was willing to weaken his defense at three positions.
Kyle Schwarber is 2nd youngest player (Brian McCann) in MLB history with a HR and 3 RBI in his postseason debut. pic.twitter.com/gKPGW6CLc0— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 8, 2015
3. Dexter Fowler leads off the game with a hit.
You can argue that this was the game. Cole came out a little too hyped up, throwing 97- and 96-mph fastballs out of the zone. Fowler swung through a 95-mph fastball and then took another fastball well off the plate. The fifth pitch was a fifth straight fastball, 94 mph down the middle and Fowler lined a hard single in front of McCutchen. Fowler then took off on the first pitch -- Cole allowed 25 steals, fifth-most in the majors -- and Schwarber got ahead 2-0 before lining a 2-2 fastball into left for the RBI hit.
Fowler would later add his home run off Cole in the fifth as he went 3-for-4 with three runs.
Dexter Fowler, 1st game with 3 hits, 3 runs scored since 2013 with Rockies (against Padres). 3rd hit, run came on HR pic.twitter.com/mCjoFx0dgt— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 8, 2015
4. The bench-clearing incident in the seventh.
The Pirates were frustrated. Can't really blame them. Here's what happened.
5. Maddon moves the defense around.
After Austin Jackson hit for La Stella in the sixth, Maddon moved Jackson to left and slid Bryant back to his usual spot at third base. He made the terrific play on Polanco that inning and then started a nice double play in the seventh. It was all Cubbies, their first playoff win after eight consecutive losses going back to the Bartman Game in the 2003 NLCS, needed.
Bring on the Cardinals. You think those fan bases will be revved up for that series?