Maybe next year is finally here for the Chicago Cubs.
The snakebitten franchise that hasn't won a World Series since 1908 took the first step toward remedying that drought Wednesday with a 4-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League Wild Card Game. Ace Jake Arrieta put the team on his back and only allowed four hits while striking out 11 during a complete-game shutout.
Offensively, only two Cubs not named Dexter Fowler or Kyle Schwarber tallied a hit, but the top two in the order combined to finish 5-for-7 with two home runs and all four RBI. Schwarber drilled a two-run mammoth blast in the third inning and drove in a run in the first, and Fowler added some insurance with a solo homer of his own in the fifth.
While Fowler and Schwarber were key, Arrieta was a one-man wrecking crew on the mound. It came as no surprise considering he posted the lowest ERA in major league history after the All-Star break at 0.75, but he performed in front of a hostile crowd and outdueled Gerrit Cole, who finished with four earned runs in five innings.
Bleacher Report Insights acknowledged Arrieta received more than enough run support from Fowler and Schwarber:
ESPN's Michael Wilbon praised Chicago Cubs skipper Joe Maddon for sticking with Arrieta the entire contest, while Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy was impressed by the ace's outing:
It was the second straight season the Pirates were shut out at home in the Wild Card Game, and former manager Ozzie Guillen referenced the outstanding performance from San Francisco Giants ace Madison Bumgarner in the 2014 contest while praising the Cubs:
Despite the much-hyped pitching matchup, the Cubs wasted little time getting the scoring started. Fowler lined a single into center as the leadoff batter, stole second base and scored on a single from the rookie Schwarber. Jayson Stark of ESPN noted falling behind 1-0 in the early going was a dangerous proposition for the Pirates against Arrieta:
After Chicago staked its starter to a 1-0 lead, Pittsburgh's hitters attempted everything they could to rattle Arrieta before he could get into a groove, as Cubs Talk from CSN Chicago pointed out:
It didn't work, and then the same offensive combination provided some quick insurance runs for the victorious Cubs.
Fowler hit another single in the top of the third, and Schwarber drilled a hanging slider completely out of PNC Park to push the lead to 3-0. Sports Illustrated MLB said the rookie sent the ball "into low-Earth orbit," while Sahadev Sharma of Baseball Prospectus pointed out that the rookie was ready for the moment:
Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review noted it was an unusual mistake from Cole that led to the home run:
MLB.com provided a video of the towering blast:
Arrieta kept the momentum rolling, but Stark pointed out it wasn't a completely lost cause for the Pirates heading into the middle portion of the game:
Fowler made Pittsburgh's potential comeback effort all the more difficult in the top of the fifth when he belted a solo home run to open up a 4-0 advantage. Bruce Levine of 670TheScore.com said Fowler was only 3-for-14 against Cole in the regular season before tallying three hits in his first three plate appearances Wednesday.
Sawchik noted Cole was rather frustrated on the mound:
The Pirates turned the ball over to their bullpen—which finished with the best collective ERA in the majors at 2.67—in the sixth inning. Antonio Bastardo pitched a scoreless frame to set up a Pittsburgh rally facing a 4-0 deficit.
Travis Snider lined a single into center, and Josh Harrison was hit by a pitch to bring up 2013 National League MVP Andrew McCutchen with two runners on and only one out. McCutchen delivered with a sharply hit ball to shortstop to load the bases, but Starling Marte grounded into a momentum-crushing double play.
Cubs Talk highlighted the reaction from Chicago, while Jerry Palm of CBS Sports noted maybe this year's team has luck on its side:
Just when it looked like the Cubs would put it on cruise control after Arrieta escaped that jam, things got feisty in the top of the seventh. Arrieta came to the plate with two outs and nobody on base, but Tony Watson drilled him with the first pitch of the at-bat. Arrieta hit two Pirates previously, but the Cubs pitcher clearly didn't plunk Harrison to set the table for McCutchen in a clutch situation.
The benches cleared as the two teams jawed back and forth. Sean Rodriguez (who had already been pulled from the game for Pedro Alvarez) was ejected and proceeded to attack the water cooler on the way out.
Comcast SportsNet provided a picture of the scuffle, while Sharma and Jon Tayler of Sports Illustrated mentioned how wrong the Pirates were to think Arrieta hit anyone intentionally with the lead:
The fight breathed some life into the crowd, but Arrieta silenced another potential rally with a double play in the bottom of the seventh. The Chicago ace again allowed a baserunner in the eighth but slammed the door shut to push the game to the final frame with a 4-0 advantage.
ESPN Stats & Info pointed out Arrieta's 11th strikeout of the game made some team history:
Pittsburgh closer Mark Melancon came in to pitch the ninth and retired the Cubs in order (although Addison Russell notched a single but was thrown out attempting to stretch it to a double), which meant the Pirates bullpen quietly threw four shutout innings to keep its team within striking distance.
Arrieta stayed in the game and finished what he started with a 1-2-3 inning. For the first time in 12 years, the Chicago Cubs won a playoff game with the 4-0 victory over the Pirates.
Because it has been so long between playoff victories, it is not a surprise the Cubs were ready to celebrate, as 670 The Score shared:
The postgame discussion was all about Arrieta, and SportsCenter passed along an amusing response from Maddon when asked about his pitcher's stamina:
Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez compared Arrieta's outing to Bumgarner's, per Turner Sports PR: "I would take this outing tonight over Burro Grande [Bumgarner] in last year's Wild Card."
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle recognized his team didn't have much of a chance against the dominant ace, per Jen Lada of ESPN: "Sometimes you draw a tough bull."
That is exactly what happened to the Pirates on Wednesday night.
Next up for the Cubs is a showdown with their archrivals, the St. Louis Cardinals, in the National League Division Series. All St. Louis did was finish with the best record in the majors this season at 100-62.
The Cubs were 8-11 against the Cardinals this year.
ESPN recognized the two teams have played each other 2,361 times in the regular season but have incredibly never faced off in the playoffs.
There is something to be said for the familiarity between the two teams, since they played so many times in the loaded National League Central. Neither pitching staff will likely surprise the opposing hitters, and it will be up to both sides to execute on the field.
Theoretically, the Cubs are at a disadvantage because Arrieta pitched Wednesday and won't be able to toe the rubber in the opening contests, but the Cardinals were decimated by injuries this year. Among those physical setbacks were a season-ending injury to pitcher Carlos Martinez and a long-term injury that wiped out most of the year for ace Adam Wainwright, who's now in the bullpen.
While Chicago will certainly have its hands full in the next round, Wednesday was all about Arrieta's dominance in a complete-game shutout. As President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein said, per Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago, "We'll deal with the Cardinals tomorrow."