Maybe the Pittsburgh Pirates finally figured that if you can’t beat Jake Arrieta, throw at him. Any old excuse will do. Even sending him a message about hitting two Pirates in situations where the last thing any pitcher plans is to drill someone. All it got was a bench-clearing brawl in the top of the seventh that did nothing but delay what was, by then, the just-about-inevitable.
Not even the abject stupidity of Pirate reliever Tony Watson throwing one at Arrieta’s hip on the first pitch of the at-bat was going to stop Arrieta and his Chicago Cubs from finishing what they started, a 4-0 National League wild card game win that’s a close enough game on any other night but feels like a blowout with Arrieta on the hill.
Until he stepped up to the plate in that moment, Arrieta had been reducing the Pirates to stowaways even when he found a way to squirm out of the most serious threat the Pirates mounted against him. And just maybe that, too, got under the skins of the Pirates since it involved the second plunked Pirate of the night.
The first one, Francisco Cervelli, led off the fifth taking one that sailed well inside. You’d have an impossible time proving intent when no pitcher wants to put the leadoff man on base, even if Willie Mays himself is leading it off. Bottom of the sixth—with pinch hitter Travis Snider aboard on a line single, and after Kris Bryant (who’d been moved to third) deflected then caught Gregory Polanco’s line smash up the line, saving extra bases at least and Arrieta’s shutout at most—and Arrieta probably isn’t even thinking of putting the next man on.
But he caught Josh Harrison with a breaking ball way inside. It only had as much speed on it as a golf cart with a tire leak. Did the Pirates really think Arrieta was going to hand Andrew McCutchen, the on-deck hitter, first and second on the house to hit with? Or did their frustration compound exponentially when—after all hands were safe to load them up after McCutchen’s grounder was knocked down but unplayable by Cub shortstop Addison Russell—Starling Marte dialed Area Code 6-4-3 to strand the ducks on the pond?
There were better reasons for the Pirates to feel frustrated. Reasons like the Cubs’ numbers one and two hitters on the night bludgeoning all the Cub runs out of Pirate starter Gerrit Cole. Like Dexter Fowler opening the game with a base hit and stealing second as Cole threw ball one to Kyle Schwarber.
Like Schwarber turning a kind of excuse-me swing into a line single to left on which Fowler scored without a second thought. Like Fowler with one out in the third lofting a shuttlecock down the right field line for a base hit. Like Schwarber following and sending a 2-1 pitch into the Allegheny River. Like Fowler with one out in the fifth hitting a 2-2 service into the right center field bleachers as though they had his name on them.
Like all of that backing Arrieta in turning the rather nicely touted Cole-Arrieta matchup into a mismatch, though in all fairness Fowler and Schwarber were the only ones to wreak any serious havoc against the Pirate righthander. Like Arrieta cruising even through the one or two real hiccups toward the first postseason shutout to be thrown with ten or more strikeouts and no walks.
But no. For whatever reason Watson thought a guy who wasn’t exactly trying to saw his mates in half with his inside stuff needed to be taught a lesson in manners. Even with Fowler on deck. It also didn’t seem to cross Watson’s mind that throwing the purpose pitch on the first pitch isn’t exactly the way to make friends and give yourself something like plausible deniability.
“I hit two guys, unintentionally,” Arrieta said straightforwardly after the Cubs had the game in the bank. “I’m not trying to hurt or hit anybody. Balls were slick tonight. I just lost it a couple of times, it kind of ran away from me. I expected [the plunk]. They’re going to take care of their own guys. It’s understandable. Everything after that was fine.”
If you didn’t count Watson barking at Arrieta after throwing a fastball right to his hip, or the umpires sending out the warnings as benches and bullpens poured forth, pushing and shoving jutted forth. It took about seven minutes for all hands to return to their cabins. “Things went south but luckily nobody was hurt,” Schwarber warbled after the game.
That’s what he thinks. Pirates first baseman Sean Rodriguez, who started the game but was lifted for pinch hitter Pedro Alvarez to open the third, got ejected, apparently for helping to whip up or amplify the scrum, and promptly delivered a rousing 1-2 punch . . . to the Gatorade cooler in the Pittsburgh dugout. It was the most powerful Pirate punch of the night.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle opened the game with Alvarez on his bench and Rodriguez at first in a bid to put speed and defensive strength in front of the Cubs. Cub manager Joe Maddon went for the throat with power on the mound and hefty enough bats in the lineup. Even Maddon probably didn’t figure the earliest-in-the-order men would do the damage that mattered from the offensive side of things.
“It burns. It stings. It sucks,” Cole said after the game. “All the negative things you can come up with, that’s how it feels right now.”
And, yes, that was Arrieta you saw stealing second after order was restored, as Watson threw a strike to Fowler en route an inning ending flare to left center. Scrum, schmum. Pick yourself off, dust yourself off, and collect your first lifetime stolen base. Then finish what you started and throw the Pirates over the side.
They said the Cubs were just too young to be even here, in the wild card game. (That must have made Arrieta at 29 feel like an old geezer.) Too young to stand up to the experienced Pirates. Too young to know that even Arrieta’s remarkable undefeated run since 25 July, with its 0.75 second-half ERA, had to have its limits.
Well, they also said Dewey defeated Truman—until he didn’t. They said the Beatles were a passing phase—until they weren’t. They said the PNC Park crowd would take the Cubs right out of the game just the way they did to Johnny Cueto and the Reds two years ago—until they couldn’t.
Arrieta even toyed a little with the crowd well before the game, answering a taunting Pirate fan’s Sunday tweet with one of his own: “whatever helps keep your hope alive, just know, it doesn’t matter.” Then he and the Cubs went out and proved it Wednesday night.
Not that the St. Louis Cardinals, their division series competition, will make things easy for them, but this was one night the Cubs just had to feel as though they could have won in their sleep.