Arrieta was on top of his game as the Cubs advanced (LA Times)
While I was surprised to see the Yankees flop in Tuesday's AL Wild Card game, I was not at all surprised when the Cubs cruise past the Pirates last night.
For one, Jake Arrieta is arguably the best pitcher in baseball this year. And if not the entire season as a whole, then definitely the second half, which was only the greatest any pitcher has ever had. He was better away from Wrigley Field, too, with a 1.60 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, and 5.16 K/BB ratio outside the Friendly Confines. Arrieta's been so ridiculously good lately, I just didn't see him losing this game.
That's not a knock on Gerrit Cole, who was tremendous in his own right this year and pitched well the last time he appeared in the postseason. But he was a better first half pitcher this year, with a 1.71 ERA through June 15th and a 3.19 ERA after. That can be attributed to natural aggression, but a small part of me thinks he may have gotten fatigued as he exceeded his previous innings high by 70. But not even first-half Cole was as good as second-half Arrieta.
I also figured he'd have some trouble with Chicago's lineup, which might be the scariest in baseball. There's no holes in that offense--not even Arrieta, the rare decent-hitting pitcher. It's a meatgrinder 1-9 with loads of power, which makes the Cubbies very difficult to neutralize. The Pirates, on the other hand, are more top-heavy. If you can get McCutchen out and keep Starling Marte off the bases and not make a mistake to Pedro Alvarez, you'll probably be alright.
And with his team shooting for its first World Series title in over a century, Arrieta was more than alright. He was his usual dominant self, carving up the Bucs in his first postseason start. Arrieta allowed just four hits--all singles--and struck out 11 en route to a shutout, the first by a Cubs pitcher in the playoffs since 1945.
While Arrieta showed lethal stuff early, racking up six K's through his first three innings, Cole struggled from the start. He put his team in a hole two batters into the game following a pair of singles sandwiched around a stolen base. A double play helped him escape the first without further damage, but Chicago's sluggers got the best of him via home runs in the third and fifth. With Pittsburgh down 4-0 and the Pirates doing nothing against Arrieta he had to come out, and while Pittsburgh's bullpen stopped the bleeding it was too little, too late. Arrieta didn't give an inch, sending the host team home early for the second year in a row.
I must say I was amazed at how similarly the two wild card games played out. In both cases the visiting team shut out the home team, smacking two home runs along the way. The better pitcher won in both cases too, with likely AL Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel getting the best of Masahiro Tanaka and Arrieta--who will win if a Dodger doesn't--topping Cole. The losing pitcher in both games exited after five as well.
I feel like the better team won in both games as well, probably because I'm still having trouble figuring out how the Yankees and Pirates made it there. The Yankees were impossibly old, and the Pirates just didn't seem that good to me. It blows my mind that Pittsburgh won 98 games this year--more than any team save the Cardinals. Maybe that's because outside of Cole and Andrew McCutchen, they're sorely lacking in star power. They don't hit a ton of home runs and their number two starter is either Francisco Liriano or A.J. Burnett. They're just a deep, balanced, really well-constructed team, which might be boring but gets the job done--in the regular season, at least.