NL Wild Card Game Unlike Any Game

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Most of us can agree that there is no bigger game in baseball than an October game with only one agenda: WIN OR GO HOME. There have been unbelievable October elimination moments in MLB history, from Bucky Harris’s ground ball that hit a pebble and hopped through third baseman Fred Lindstrom’s legs to give the Washington Senators a Game 7 victory over the New York Giants in the 1924 World Series, to last season’s AL Wild Card Game, in which the Kansas City Royals’s dramatic comeback against the Oakland Athletics was finalized with Salvador Perez’s single down the left field line. That kick started their World Series push, which ended in another Game 7 that saw them come up short against Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants. However, on the night of October 7 at PNC Park, fans will witness a game unlike any that has been played in recent postseason play.

The Pittsburgh Pirates and visiting Chicago Cubs have both had miraculous seasons, and have proven not only to be future perennial playoff contenders, but also World Series contenders. Pittsburgh finished with 98 wins, their most in a season since 1991, with the help of an electric offense and a rich rotation comprised of young, budding stars and crafty veterans. The north side of Chicago is enjoying their team’s best season since 2008 (and before that 1945, the last time they appeared in the Fall Classic) with 97 wins of their own. The Cubs are loaded with talented youth, with some veterans thrown in, and are poised to break their dreaded curse once and for all. So how do these teams get rewarded for their great play this season? How do the Pirates move toward a goal untouchable since 1979? How do the Cubs start their pursuit to break the curse? ONE GAME… WIN OR GO HOME.

Despite being the Wild Card recipients for the National League, the Pirates and Cubs finished with the second and third best records, respectively, in all of baseball. However, since they belong in the NL Central, which saw the perennial division champion St. Louis Cardinals amassing 100 wins, these two teams’s stellar seasons both come down to a showdown in the NL Wild Card Game at PNC Park. One team will continue on their path towards greatness; the other will be sent home, reminiscing on what could have been. The unfairness doesn’t stop after this game, as the winner must travel to Busch Stadium in St. Louis for the first two games of a division series against the best team in baseball.

Adding to the madness of the situation is the pitching matchup, which is sure to impress any baseball fan. Both teams will showcase their aces for this one game clash; Chicago sends Jake Arrieta, and Pittsburgh answers with Gerrit Cole.

Arrieta’s pitching performance this season has been nothing short of astounding. After breaking out last year and finishing ninth in Cy Young voting with a 10-5, 2.53 ERA performance, he started the 1st half this season with 10 wins and 2.66 ERA. However, it is Arrieta’s 2nd half stats that will really catch your eye: 107.1 IP (15 starts), 12-1, 0.75 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, 9.5 K/9, 113/23 K/BB

Arrieta had arguably the best 2nd half of any pitcher in baseball history. He was virtually unhittable in every start, culminating a no-hitter on August 30 against the Dodgers. He finished his campaign 1st in the NL in wins (22), complete games (4), shutouts (3) and hits/9 (5.9). He should be hoisting the NL Cy Young Award after the season, regardless of the Cubs fate this October.

The Pirates have a rising star and face of their rotation opposing Arrieta in Gerrit Cole. Cole, the 1st overall selection by Pittsburgh in the 2011 MLB Draft, took a shutout into the 7th inning in his MLB debut in 2013, and has performed well ever since. He has amassed 40 wins in 73 career starts. His best season came in 2015; he compiled a 19-8 record with a 2.60 ERA, 1.09 WHIP line, including 8.7 K/9.

This pitching duel is sure to be a show-stopper, and the game looks to be low scoring. With that being said, both teams’s offenses are capable of spoiling a pitcher’s day and, in this game, season.

Pittsburgh’s offense cooled off in August and September but is still a dynamite lineup that knows how to get on base. MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen remains one of baseball’s best and, with speedsters Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte hitting in front of him, he’s sure to have opportunities to drive in runs and spoil Chicago’s season. They also bring forth somewhat imposing bench bats in Josh Harrison and 2014 NLCS hero Travis Ishikawa. The biggest set back for the Pirates is the loss of scrappy shortstop Jung Ho Kang. After pushing toward Rookie of the Year consideration, Kang injured his knee in September, ending his season.

The Chicago Cubs boast one of the best young offenses in all of baseball. After the All-Star break, the promotion of rookie Kyle Schwarber energed the whole team. Everyone in the lineup, 1-8, has produced no worse than league-average batting averages and OPSs. The two consistant bashers for the Cubs are MVP candidate Anthony Rizzo and sure-fire Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant. Rizzo finished in the top-seven in the NL in doubles, home runs, RBI and slugging, while Bryant led all rookies with 26 home runs and 99 RBI. The biggest problem for Chicago, especially against the power-pitching Cole, is strikeouts. The Cubs struck out far more often than any team in baseball this season. However, that didn’t stop them from becoming the best offense in the NL for the 2nd half off the season.

Both teams also have postseason-experienced managers, with Joe Maddon in Chicago and Clint Hurdle in Pittsburgh. There is no viable way to determine who is a better manager for this one game scenario, but Maddon does seem to have a slight advantage with his calculated mind and ability to lead his young club into the biggest game of their careers and the franchise’s biggest game since 2008. Don’t count out Hurdle, though. He has revamped this franchise into contenders again and his players are ready to battle for him. He doesn’t quite enjoy the popularity Maddon does, even though he amassed more victories.

The stage is now set. Two of baseball’s top three teams battling in Pittsburgh for the right to continue their season. One team will travel to St. Louis and contend with the best to further pursue their destiny of winning it all. The other team will head home, their regular season performance only an afterthought, with next year already firmly in the players ‘minds. Whatever your plans are tomorrow, make sure to have this game on somewhere, because you never know what could happen in games with this one purpose: WIN OR GO HOME.

 

Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

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