The Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates have been two of the best teams in baseball all season, and they'll wage one more battle this year in order to determine who owns the wild-card spot in the National League.
Grantland's Rany Jazayerli argued this year's wild-card matchup is further evidence in support of the current playoff structure:
The winner of the game will play another NL Central foe, the St. Louis Cardinals, in the National League Division Series.
If Cubs vs. Pirates is what we're starting off with in the 2015 MLB postseason, then this should be a memorable playoffs all around.
|NL Wild Card Game|
|Date||Time||Pitching Matchup||TV Info||Live Stream|
|Wed., Oct. 7||8 p.m. ET||Gerrit Cole (PIT) vs. Jake Arrieta (CHI)||TBS||TBS.com; Watch TBS|
Preview and Prediction
On paper, the Cubs should have the edge in the wild-card playoff based on the pitching matchup. Jake Arrieta is getting the nod for Chicago, and he'll oppose Gerrit Cole, whom the Pirates announced as their starter Saturday, per the Associated Press (via ESPN.com).
Arrieta ranks first on ESPN.com's NL Cy Young Predictor and has some of the best stuff in baseball when everything is clicking, lest we forget his no-hitter against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Aug. 30.
Of course, Cole is extremely talented in his own right and among the top pitchers in the National League. But in a head-to-head comparison, the Cubs right-hander stacks up better:
|Jake Arrieta vs. Gerrit Cole|
Arrieta did lead the NL in innings pitched (229.0) entering Sunday, but the Cubs are confident fatigue won't become an issue for him in the postseason.
"I've not seen anything slide backward at all, whether it's command, whether it's velocity, whether it's break on the breaking pitches," said manager Joe Maddon, per Patrick Mooney of CSNChicago.com. "Furthermore, he's cooperated so well regarding how to get to this point—only seven (innings) last time, only six this time. There were not a lot of stressful moments."
Also, Arrieta may have actually gotten stronger as the season went on, as evidenced by these stats from ESPN's Buster Olney and Baseball Tonight:
In addition, the Pirates have to be concerned by Arrieta's record against them this year. In five starts, he's 3-1 with a 0.75 ERA, per Baseball-Reference.com. In 36 innings, he allowed just three earned runs.
Still, a dominant starting pitcher isn't enough to guarantee a win in a one-game playoff. Last year, Jon Lester allowed six earned runs in 7.1 innings of the AL Wild Card Game, while Johnny Cueto looked completely overwhelmed after taking the mound for the 2013 NL Wild Card Game.
Arrieta hasn't appeared in the postseason yet in his career, and Pirates fans will ensure PNC Park is a cauldron. Ask Cueto how raucous the Pittsburgh crowd can get:
With all the praise of Arrieta, it can be easy to overlook just how good Pittsburgh has been, as Pirates writer Pat Lackey joked:
The Pirates' offensive numbers don't blow you away. They're hitting .259 with a .323 on-base percentage, while a .312 weighted on-base average and 99 weighted runs created are among the middle of the pack.
But combine Pittsburgh's lineup with a fantastic pitching staff and a bullpen boasting a 3.41 FIP (third in MLB), and you have a great all-around team.
Pittsburgh also seems to have the kind of magic you can't quantify—similar to the aura surrounding the Kansas City Royals last year. Those back-to-back walk-offs over the St. Louis Cardinals are likely still fresh in fans' minds:
As long as the Pirates are within a run or two of the Cubs in the late innings, they won't be completely out of the NL Wild Card Game.
Still, good pitching almost always beats good hitting in the postseason, and the Cubs have the luxury of throwing the potential NL Cy Young Award winner against the Pirates in the one-game playoff. Arrieta is as much of a guarantee on the mound as you can have at this stage of the season.
As a result, Chicago will earn a hard-fought victory to advance to the NLDS.
Prediction: Cubs win 4-3
Note: Stats are courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise noted and up to date through Saturday's games.