By Nate Johnson
With 18 games left in the regular season, the five remaining with the Pittsburgh Pirates loom as the largest on the schedule for the Chicago Cubs. Between a four-game series in Pittsburgh that started with a Tuesday doubleheader and a return trip to the Friendly Confines for a three-game set, the two teams will be very familiar by the time the October 7 National League Wild Card game comes along.
Much like the early-August four-game series with the San Francisco Giants that started with the Giants holding down the second wild card spot and finished with the Cubs having taken over, these seven games give Chicago the opportunity to position themselves for a one-game play-in at home rather than at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park, which would be the case if the season ended today. The Pirates came into this week’s series with a four-game lead over the Cubs and the best record in the Major Leagues since May 9, while the Cubs have already secured a record over .500 after five straight losing seasons.
Game 1 of Tuesday’s double-dip saw the Cubs lose 5-4 after clawing back to level the game. The Pirates erased a first inning Chris Coghlan sac fly with 3 runs of their own before adding another in the third.
The bats came to life in the seventh and aided by a pair of Joakim Soria wild pitches were able to tie the game at 4 apiece. But a Starling Marte sac fly off Justin Grimm was enough to see the Pirates through.
The Cubs won Game 2 on the back of a Jon Lester complete game. The left-hander allowed just 1 earned-run, striking out nine. Anthony Rizzo and Dexter Fowler had RBIs as the Cubs closed the gap on the Wild Card leaders to 4 games and 6.5 back of the Cardinals.
Wednesday’s matchup sees Jake Arrieta take the mound for the Northsiders in an attempt to become this season’s first 20-game winner. Both Chicago and Pittsburgh have set up their starting rotations for the play-in game, as Arrieta was tabbed for the honor by the Cubs while the Pirates line up to send their ace, right-hander Gerrit Cole, out for the must-win game.
Arrieta is coming off yet another magnificent start in the opener of last Friday’s doubleheader against the Philadelphia Phillies, having given up just one run on six hits and striking out seven in his 16th straight quality start.
Friday’s doubleheader sweep not only featured the pitching prowess of Arrieta in the game one win, but the continuing offensive dominance of the team’s rookies, as Kris Bryant hit his 24th home run and Kyle Schwarber went deep twice after missing most of the prior ten days with a rib injury. Over the weekend, however, the Phillies bounced back to take two straight, leaving the series at a 2-2 split.
Besides solidifying their playoff chances, the Cubs individually continue to make their argument for postseason awards. The arguments for Arrieta in the National League Cy Young Award race and Bryant for Rookie of the Year have been well documented in these pages, but the strongest candidate for a trophy might be manager Joe Maddon, who has taken the team to a level that few were expecting before 2016 at the earliest.
After the visit to Pittsburgh, the Cubs return home on Friday to host the St. Louis Cardinals, from whom they took two out of three at Busch Stadium last week, and the Milwaukee Brewers before the rematch with the Pirates.
While the split with the lowly Phillies hurt the team’s momentum coming out of a successful trip to St. Louis, a strong stretch against their NL Central foes would put them right back on track.