Dexter Fowler dove face first into the dirt that preceded second base. His arms outstretched, the play was going to be close. As Josh Harrison fielded the laser beam from his catcher, he swept the leather of his glove down to meet Fowler. Just as the Cubs' leadoff man appeared to out by mere millimeters, a spot of white appeared below Harrison's glove. The ball was free, and Fowler was safe. It was the top of the first, and the Cubs were looking to strike quickly. Nearly a minute and a half later, rookie Kyle Schwarber, nudged a two-ball, two-strike offering from Gerrit Cole into deep left field. Fowler was home free. The Cubs had scored before giving up an out. One run early on is hardly ever a death wish for a team like the Pittsburgh Pirates, and with Cole on the mound, it seemed likely the damage would be minimal. The only issue the home team would encounter, was that of Cole's adversary Wednesday night- Jake Arrieta.
Since the All-Star break, Arrieta has been relatively and literally unhittable. His no-hitter on September 30 against Los Angeles was the zenith of his historic season. It had been a long time coming, as there have been many nights Arrieta carried a team hitless for five - six - seven innings. In the midst of a summer in which he broke numerous Cubs franchise records for pitching, the twenty-nine year old right hander was asserting himself as the North Side ace. When a team adds a lefty of the magnitude like Jon Lester, the consequence of Arrieta's rise to prominence is even more magnified. The top of the Cubs' rotation makes for a brutal assault on any lineup. When the team was all but locked for the National League Wild Card game however, there was only one choice for who would start on the mound. The strategy of leaving Lester for a potential game one was not the idea of a team overlooking its first opponent. Quite the contrary, as Arrieta seemed to feed off of the opportunity.
Confidence is commonplace in today's professional sports realm. Players "guarantee" victory, recalling Joe Namath's actually bold claim before Super Bowl III, but for the most part it comes off as a hollow handshake of arrogance. If a team loses, the player merely recedes into the ether and allows the inevitable flak to berate his reputation until everyone just kinda forgets about it. Jake Arrieta made no guarantees, but when a Pirates fan tweeted that the crowd at PNC Park would be an intimidating force, the pitcher merely pushed it aside. Whatever helps you keep hope alive, just know, it doesn't matter. The tweet hyped the game that much more, causing the black and gold faithful to develop a nine-inning plan to get inside the head of whomever was toeing the rubber for their opponent. Through two innings, Arrieta had given up one hit but acquired three strikeouts. The plan was slipping away, and the inevitable would come to fruition mere moments later.
Dexter Fowler again got on base ahead of Kyle Schwarber. The home crowd had cooled as Fowler took his predetermined lead from first base. The difference in the third inning was that this time there would be no play at second base. Schwarber was ahead in the count two and one when he connected on Gerrit Cole's next pitch. The amount of bravado that the twenty-two year old displayed was Herculean. For a moment he admired the shot and dropped his bat with the swagger of someone who had not been in MLB's instructional league just a year ago. The ball was still rising as it cleared the right field fence. The message had been sent- this was going to be Pittsburgh's last game of 2015. As the Cubs took a three run lead, the figures and statistics began rolling in. Arrieta had given up three runs total in his previous seventy innings. Soon enough the only roars were coming from the pockets of blue that were dotting PNC Park.
The Pittsburgh Pirates were damned in a way relative to the villains in The Day the Earth Stood Still. From the moment the game began, they were doomed. As it was the year before against San Francisco's living nightmare Madison Bumgarner, the Pirates were in a place where even though they were hosting the Wild Card game, it was a one-and-done situation against a greatly superior pitcher. Were we to transpose the last two seasons back five years on the calendar, the Pirates would have been alone in their Wild Card position with a best of five slated from the start. The rule change allowing a second Wild Card team had come at a time that coincided with Pittsburgh's rise from anonymity in baseball. Each year I have written about the NL's game, the Pirates have hosted. Only once have they won. Baseball is a cruel game, and in recent memory few franchises know this unbelievable heartache more than the Pirates and Cubs. Something had to give, and yet again the home team had drawn the short straw.
Two innings after scoring on Schwarber's blast, Dexter Fowler stood in again against Gerrit Cole. Already with two hits in the game, the twenty-nine year old free-agent to be was looking to make his mark on the national spotlight. With two balls and two strikes, Fowler belted yet another Cole offering beyond the infield. This time, however, it would clear the outfield. A meteoric blast seven rows into the right field seats put the Cubs up four to nothing. Arrieta hadn't given up four runs in an outing since July. The result was a fait accompli.
The only moment of uncertainty came in the sixth inning. With one out, the bases were loaded behind Arrieta. Starling Marte, the Pirates' cleanup hitter, stood in. This was the moment of truth for these upstart Cubs. With one swing, a man very capable of doing such things could tie the game. On the second pitch of the at bat, Marte made contact. The ball one-hopped to shortstop Addison Russell, who fielded and turned to a fleet-footed Starlin Castro covering second. One out. Castro aligned himself and sent a whip to first baseman Anthony Rizzo. As the ball landed in Rizzo's glove, he let out a jolt of emotion. The threat was not only quenched, but this was perhaps Pittsburgh's last chance at staying in the game. It was for naught. Arrieta had faltered, if only briefly, but his defense was up to the task.
In the top of the seventh, after two Pirates had been hit by Arrieta pitches, the tension in the home dugout boiled over. New pitcher Tony Watson plunked the Cubs' starter on the side. Arrieta, normally a stoic force of collected providence, was not walking straight to first base. The chatter between he and Watson soon caused the warnings of both benches by home plate umpire Jeff Nelson. Black and Blue clashed along the first base line as benches cleared. As is typical with modern Major League fights, no punches connected, but Nelson had seen enough to toss Pirates' first baseman Sean Rodriguez from the game. Rodriguez spewed a few threats in the direction of the visiting dugout, then began to assault a Gatorade cooler with a flurry of punches. The tension within the Pittsburgh fold had snapped. What's worse came soon thereafter, as Arrieta took second base easily, theoretically pouring gasoline on the open wound along the Allegheny River. The head games had been turned back to the 'blackout' crowd. Arrieta had become a hated adversary in one night and the budding Pirates-Cubs rivalry had its catalyst.
Through the eighth. To the ninth. Jake Arrieta was alone on the mound and there was not a soul wearing blue who would have it any other way. McCutchen grounded out to the pitcher. One away. Starling Marte followed suit, only grounding to Kris Bryant at third base instead. The Pirates last breath was taken by Francisco Cervelli. He made contact, but only so much that the ball floated gently into the glove of a waiting Starlin Castro.
The joy upon Castro's face was not lost on me. In his six seasons with the team, Starlin had seen unprecedented losses and unyielding criticism. His move to second base seemed inevitable, especially after the Cubs acquired Addison Russell from Oakland. Castro went through the worst rough patch of his career this season, but handled manager Joe Maddon's handling of it with professionalism that had once escaped the former shortstop. The game had ended in his glove. The Cubs had won a playoff game for the first time in twelve years. As the blue-clad victors embraced in the infield, I let out a sigh of relief. My team had won a playoff game, and it felt as beautiful as I remembered it would.
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