For the Cubs, it all comes down to 1

Arrieta takes the mound in Pittsburgh for wild card playoff

By Nate Johnson
Columnist

After all of the ups and downs of the last six months, it only seems right that everything is coming down to one game. Tonight’s matchup between the Chicago Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates, a meeting that fans have been looking toward for weeks now, will mean the end of the season for one team and a date with the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Division Series for the other.

Cubs_Pirates_boxComing off a stellar 22-6 season and his second straight National League Pitcher of the Month honor, Jake Arrieta will take the mound for the Cubs against Pirates ace Gerrit Cole. Arrieta handled the Bucs much like he did the rest of the league this season, going 3-1 in five starts (one no-decision) with a 0.75 ERA and a lopsided 33/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Cole proved equally strong against the Cubs with a 2-1 record in four starts (also one no-decision) and a 32/4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Tonight’s game will mark the third straight year that the wild card play-in match will be held in Pittsburgh, with the Pirates taking the 2013 game from the Cincinnati Reds and losing the 2014 game to the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants. The perceived home-field advantage for the Bucs, however, might prove negligible as the Cubs actually had a better regular-season record in Pittsburgh than they did hosting the Pirates (6-4 at PNC Park versus 5-4 at Wrigley Field).

Chicago enters the playoffs riding an eight-game winning streak and a 15-5 record in the last 20, and not just on the arm of Cy Young Award front-runner Arrieta. Left-hander Jon Lester righted the ship after a shaky start to the season and ended the year with 207 strikeouts, a new team record for southpaws. The starters as a group wrapped up the year with a 0.20 ERA over the last seven games, the second-lowest such mark in over 100 years.

On the offensive side, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo have put up the biggest numbers for this year’s squad, but the most eye-opening performance of late has been that of Starlin Castro. Having been removed from a long entrenchment at shortstop for rookie Addison Russell, Castro was initially benched before being moved to second base (left vacant by the shift of Russell). Starlin took the move in stride, putting up a team-leading .300 batting average since the All-Star break and collecting both a four-hit and two-homer game over the final two weeks of the season.

The return to the playoffs for the Cubs has meant a return to the ballpark for fans as well. While MLB showed only a miniscule 0.2 percent increase in attendance this season, Wrigley Field attendance was up 11.6 percent overall, nearly 307,000 more fans than visited the Friendly Confines last season. The current total of 2,959,812 could pop the 3 million mark if they get a couple of home games in October.

Read: Cubs v. Pirates: A shot in the dark

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