Cubs: 1 down, 11 to go

The Cubs take on the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS starting tonight, with Jon Lester taking the mound at Busch Stadium.

By Nate Johnson

Behind the seemingly infallible right arm (and base-stealing moxie) of Jake Arrieta and the preternatural bat of rookie Kyle Schwarber, the Chicago Cubs made short work of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League Wild Card Game on Wednesday night. Arrieta pitched a complete game shutout, striking out 11 and walking none, and Schwarber drove in three of the team’s four runs with a first-inning single to start the scoring and a massive two-run home run in the third to give the team’s ace all he needed for a 4-0 win.

NLDS_breakout_box3The victory added several bullet points to Arrieta’s sparkling resume, as the right-hander became the first pitcher in post-season history to throw a shutout with over ten strikeouts and zero walks. He also joined three other men as the only hurlers to throw a shutout with less than five hits and more than ten strikeouts in their first playoff outing.

Tensions rose in the top of the seventh inning as Pirates reliever Tony Watson hit Arrieta with a pitch in retaliation for the two Pittsburgh batters the Cubs starter had errantly hit earlier in the game. Benches cleared and words were exchanged but cooler heads prevailed, save Pittsburgh handyman Sean Rodriguez, who fought a dugout cooler to a draw.

After the dust cleared, Arrieta swiped second base, becoming the third pitcher in the last 50 years to steal a base in the postseason and sealing another spot in history as the only pitcher to end a playoff game with more bases stolen than runs allowed.

For their efforts on Wednesday, the Cubs get to head to Busch Stadium to face their perennial rival, the St. Louis Cardinals, in the National League Division Series. The series kicks off tonight with their only playoff-tested starter, lefty Jon Lester, facing off with former Boston staff mate John Lackey.

Lackey holds the upper hand in the season series between the two clubs, winning two out of three starts–St. Louis won the third, but Lackey did not take the decision–and holding Chicago to three earned runs in 21.2 innings pitched. Lester was not nearly as sharp against the Redbirds, taking a 1-3 record in five starts and allowing over twice as many earned runs per inning as Lackey.

Those statistics are regular season games, though, and the postseason is one of the big reasons Cubs brass brought Lester into the fold. The southpaw seems to take his game up a notch each round they get deeper into the fall. Overall in his playoff career, Lester holds a 6-4 record with a 3:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a sub-3.00 ERA, and those numbers pop to 3-0, 4.5:1 and a frugal 0.43 once you get to the World Series.

Saturday’s Game 2 matchup will see righty Kyle Hendricks get the nod over his more seasoned teammate Jason Hammel (a tentative Game 4 starting candidate) to go up against the resident lefty in St. Louis’s rotation, Jaime Garcia. Neither team has much familiarity with the two starters, as Hendricks faced the Cardinals just once this season, giving up four runs in five innings during an early May start and Garcia has not taken on the Cubs since the first month of the 2012 season.

The best-of-five series will return to Chicago on Monday as Arrieta will take the home field, opposed by Michael Wacha. The NLDS winner will move on to face the winner of the Los Angeles Dodgers/New York Mets series in the National League Championship Series, kicking off Saturday, October 17.

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