Sports Magazine

2015 NL Wild Card Game: Cubs at Pirates

By Kipper @pghsportsforum
Probables: Jake Arietta (22-6, 1.77) vs. Gerrit Cole (19-8, 2.60)
"Historic: Cubs-Pirates, 8 ET on TBS
By Phil Rogers / | + 62 COMMENTS
PITTSBURGH -- About time, huh?
Two of baseball's oldest, most storied franchises are about to do something they've never done. Together in the postseason for the first time, the Pirates and Cubs are representing the National League as Wild Card clubs and will square off tonight at PNC Park, live on TBS at 8 ET/7 CT. If the Cubs can win behind Jake Arrieta, they'll do something else they've never done, meeting their rival Cardinals for the first time in a postseason series.
Clint Hurdle's Pirates are just as motivated to get a crack at the Cardinals, who stopped them short of the NL Championship Series in 2013.
Between them, the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs boast some of the greatest players in the history of the game. They've been beating up on each other since before the Cubs' "Tinker to Evers to Chance" years, and find themselves at a long-awaited chance to play king of the hill. While the matchup tonight will revolve around Gerrit Cole vs. Arrieta, sooner or later there's a big hit in every baseball game, even in the best pitchers' duel.
No hitters are more likely to step into the role of hero in the NL Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser than Andrew McCutchen and Anthony Rizzo.
"We're so familiar with this team, they're so familiar with us," Rizzo said. "You have to try to approach it as another game. We'll have as much fun with it as we can. We're confident and loose and we'll stay that way as long as the thing rides out."
McCutchen is a perennial MVP candidate, having won the award in 2013 and twice finishing third in the voting. Rizzo is on his way to becoming an annual consideration for the award. He finished 10th a year ago and like McCutchen will be near the top of hitters stacked behind likely winner Bryce Harper of the Nationals this year.
Both hunger to be the guys who come through night after night in a long October run. It will not be a surprise if one of them plays that role in the coming weeks.
Here's something that's a bit unexpected: While McCutchen has played seven postseason games the last two years for the Pirates, who claimed their third consecutive Wild Card spot, he has yet to drive in a run.
But really, don't blame him. He's been the "don't-let-him-beat-you'' guy in the scouting reports put together by the Giants, Cardinals and Reds, and their pitchers have taken that to heart. He's also suffered badly from a lack of opportunity, as the Pirates' 1-2 hitters have batted .125 in those seven postseason games the last two years, including a 1-for-38 showing in the 2013 NLDS against St. Louis.
"This is the game of baseball,'' McCutchen said after that series. "It doesn't always go your way, so you have to make the most of your opportunity. I wish I would have had that opportunity a little more, but it's something that didn't happen.''
McCutchen has come to the plate only three times with men in scoring position in the postseason, and two of those times he was walked. When Madison Bumgarner challenged him in the eighth inning of the 2014 Wild Card Game, the Giants were already leading Pittsburgh, 8-0.
Starling Marte and Pedro Alvarez are productive hitters when they're hot, but neither provides the consistent threat that will keep the Cubs from focusing heavily on McCutchen, who has gone 8-for-23 with two doubles and no home runs off Arrieta. In that regard, Rizzo is fortunate.
A left-handed hitter, Rizzo often seemed on an island in his first seasons with the Cubs. But the arrival of right-handed-hitting Kris Bryant this season has given Joe Maddon one of the game's best combinations of middle-of-the-order hitters, whom he can move around in the lineup according to the matchup.
Rizzo, who finished the season with 31 home runs, 101 RBIs and an .899 OPS, has gone 6-for-17 with no homers against Cole. The Pirates have to worry that if he doesn't do damage, Bryant (26 homers, 99 RBIs, .858 OPS) or Kyle Schwarber (16 homers, 43 RBIs, .842 OPS) might.
"See the ball and hit it," Rizzo said. "They have a good pitcher going, we have a good pitcher going. The focus will be on defense."
While the Pirates' lineup options are limited since Chris Coghlan's takeout slide sidelined Jung Ho Kang, it's unclear whom the Cubs will start at second base and in the outfield corners, but it appears as if Maddon will play Bryant in left field and Schwarber in right, with Tommy La Stella (the only Cub with an extra-base hit off Cole) at third.
Theo Epstein's Chicago front office has had its computer humming with game simulations designed to suggest if the odds favor the best hitters available or the gloves to win a 1-0 game behind Arrieta. Either way, the margin of error is going to be tiny, and the significance of a big hit from the leading men, McCutchen and Rizzo, will be huge.
Things to know about this game
• While the Pirates have gone 8-1 in Cole's nine career starts against the Cubs, including a 3-1 record this year, the middle of the Cubs order has had success against him. Rizzo and Bryant are a combined 9-for-26 against Cole. Neither has homered off him, however. Any home run off Cole or Arrieta (who had the first sub-2.00 ERA for the Cubs since Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1920) will be a major development, as Cole and Arrieta have thrown a combined 61 1/3 innings this year against their Wild Card opponent without allowing a home run.
• Neither the Pirates nor Cubs ran a lot in the second half of the season but a stolen base could be a major factor in the tight, low-scoring game that's expected. Only Jon Lester (44) and Tyson Ross (37) allowed more stolen bases this season than Arrieta (27) and Cole (25). The most likely players to impact the game with their speed are Marte, Gregory Polanco and Dexter Fowler, but don't discount McCutchen, Bryant or even Rizzo swiping a big base. The Cubs will pinch-run with Quintin Berry, who played in the 2012 and '13 World Series with the Tigers and Red Sox; the Pirates will use Keon Broxton (39 stolen bases in the high Minors) as a pinch-runner.
• The noise level at PNC Park will rival Kauffman Stadium during Game 7 of the World Series, but pitching, not home-field advantage, will decide the game. While the Pirates were tied for third in the Majors with 53 home wins, the Cubs built their 97-win season by winning 48 games on the road, the most in the Majors. They are 6-4 at PNC, winning three of four on the Pirates' turf in mid-September.
Phil Rogers is a national columnist for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs."

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