You’ve carefully screened the standings. You’ve subjected the upcoming schedule to a battery of tests. You’ve palpated the playoff odds reports. And while you still haven’t received a definitive diagnosis, the truth is starting to sink in: Barring a baseball miracle, your beloved Pittsburgh Pirates, who clinched a playoff spot last night, are less than two weeks away from facing neckbearded, nigh-unbeatable Cubs ace Jake Arrieta in the do-or-die NL wild-card game.
Given Arrieta’s sub-1.00 ERA over his past 18 starts — 16 of which the Cubs have won — “do” isn’t looking that likely. You’re understandably devastated. What have the Pirates done to deserve this? They engage in cute clubhouse activities and haven’t broken an unwritten rule since at least late June. Their pitchers lead the league in beanings, but their batters lead the league in being beaned, so their worst crimes are already repaid. Their payroll isn’t close to the Cubs’, they haven’t hacked anyone, and they employ Andrew McCutchen, who’s among the league leaders in likability. And while their measly 35-season title drought can’t compare to the Cubs’, they’ve gone a lot longer without winning a postseason series.
So while Arrieta recorded his major-league-leading fourth complete game and third shutout Tuesday, improving his record to 20-6, your thoughts may have strayed toward a dark place of self-pity. No one would blame you: You’ve been dealt a bad blow. But you don’t have to get through this alone. We’ve prepared a short pamphlet that explains some of the emotions you might experience between now and your October 7 Arrieta Reckoning. Call it the Cub-ler-Ross model of coping with wild-card angst.
Sure, the prognosis sounds bad. But maybe the worst doesn’t have to happen. Technically, there’s still time to avoid Arrieta. The NL Central–leading Cardinals are only four games up on the Pirates with 10 to play, including three head-to-head matchups next week. Sweep that series, and you’re well on your way to a buzzer-beating division title. The playoff odds give Pittsburgh a 5.6 percent chance of passing St. Louis, but those soulless simulations might be underestimating the impact of the injured Yadier Molina, without whom the Cardinals have been a .500 team over the past six seasons (smallish sample be damned). If the Pirates can clinch a spot in the division series and force the Cubs and Cardinals into a wild-card duel to the death, Pittsburgh could go up against either occasional losers like Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, and John Lackey — or Arrieta anyway! But only once in a full-fledged five-game series, instead of once in a one-game whatever-the-wild-card-is.
The best bulwark against despair is baseball’s nature as a senseless sport in which Jeff Samardzija can give up 10 runs to Oakland and one-hit Detroit in the span of a week, and a 35-year-old Rich Hill can throw back-to-back gems in his first big league starts since 2009. Arrieta is on an incredible run, but let’s put things in perspective: He’s only four months removed from allowing a home run to Tuffy Gosewisch. Where there’s a Gosewisch homer, there’s hope. Watch this swing as many times as it takes to make Arrieta look beatable.
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Seriously, a wild-card game again? It was fun in 2013, when Pirates fans were so playoff-parched that any excuse to hang October bunting at PNC Park was worth it. It was less fun last year, when the Pirates became the first body buried in Madison Bumgarner’s backyard. Just once, it would be nice if the Pirates could appear in the postseason without having to justify their presence by surviving a win-or-go-home showdown. Unless the Rangers lose their lead in the AL West, no other team will have had to tolerate wild-card anxiety more than once in the first four years of the expanded playoff format. The Pirates are about to be 3-for-4. And to make matters more frustrating, they’ll have to take on Arrieta without their second-best hitter, Jung Ho Kang, whose season-ending injury was caused by a Cub.
Adding to the indignity, the Pirates may have had a better season than the Cardinals, who have an inferior Base Runs record but have had better luck. And they’re definitely a better team than the Mets, who get to waltz past the wild-card game because they’re in a different division (which happens to be terrible). There’s no perfect way to set up the playoffs, but the potential for the Pirates to go home after one game while lesser teams get longer leashes exposes one downside of the way things work now.
Here’s the worst part: No one will miss the Pirates if Arrieta erases them, because the Cubs have the more hapless history. Two years ago, Pittsburgh was the playoff team with the most pathetic past, but the sympathy points accrued during a 20-year playoff drought only last until a more downtrodden team comes along. It’s an abrupt reversal, capricious enough to make any Pirates fan who witnessed the Matt Morris trade hope the whole world gets gobbled up by PNC’s man-eating tarp.
You’re not getting greedy. It’s not like you’re beseeching the baseball gods to let the Pirates knock Arrieta around. You just want them to keep the score close, like they did against Arrieta on May 17, when he allowed one run over seven innings but Pirates pitchers kept the Cubs off the board. Once the game gets to the bullpens, the two staffs are evenly matched. So if there’s some sin you can stop committing or some donation you can make that would lead to a scoreless tie through seven, the universe just has to send you a sign. Maybe you’re supposed to suffer in silence when pop-up ads tell you to entrust your savings to something called FanKings (or is it DraftDuel?). Or maybe the message will be something more subtle, like a mystical homeless man whose sign says, “Why lie, I need a Pirates pennant.”
It’s also possible that Arrieta will break down without any penance on your part. He leads his league in innings, and he’s thrown more pitches than any other player on an NL contender. He’s already blown by his heaviest single-season workload. He’s also repped by Scott Boras, has a history of elbow problems, and, like Matt Harvey, is approaching his first free-agent contract.1 Is it too much to ask that Boras release a statement on, say, October 6, demanding that the Cubs shut down his client to save him for 2016? Or, failing deus ex superagent, that all the wear and tear takes its natural toll? You don’t wish any lasting harm upon Arrieta: You’re not the sort of monster who deserves to see a 162-game success story struck down in one postseason game. You’d settle for anything season-ending, which at this point might mean missing one start. Maybe Arrieta could roll an ankle in an AC/DC divot, or develop another blister that prevents him from throwing breaking balls.
Arrieta will be a free agent after the 2017 season, Harvey after the 2018 campaign.
Asked whether he was rooting for his rivals to play at full strength in a tight 2013 race, then-Rays manager Joe Maddon said, “I want to beat everybody when they’re whole, I mean that sincerely.” That’s admirable, but Maddon can keep his precious desire for an honorable, non-asterisked win to himself, especially after the Chris Coghlan slide. If the universe could conspire to keep Arrieta off the mound for one crucial game, you wouldn’t complain about not beating the Cubs’ best.
You’ve tried to find a loophole or put a positive spin on certain defeat, but as the game gets closer, there’s no way to avoid the conclusion that you’re seriously screwed. Arrieta has an 0.86 ERA since the All-Star break, which would be the best in big league history if it holds up. He’s lowered that to 0.48 over his past 10 starts — the best ERA in any 10-start stretch since Bob Gibson in 1968 — despite leaguewide scoring rates bouncing back to pre-expanded-strike-zone levels during his most successful months. If he can keep his 18-start streak of at least six innings pitched with three runs or fewer allowed alive over his last two regular-season outings — one of which, in a gratuitous twist of the knife, is scheduled for this Sunday opposite A.J. Burnett — he’ll have a chance to tie 2004 Johan Santana for the longest such single-season streak in the wild-card era. (That guy was good.) And there’s no pretending that the Pirates have his number. In four starts against Pittsburgh this season — most recently on September 16, when he rickshaw-rolled right over them — he’s allowed four runs (three earned) in 29 innings. There’s some evidence that batters get better in each subsequent start against a pitcher they’ve seen previously, but the Pirates’ familiarity with Arrieta hasn’t helped yet.
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In fact, not only is there no sense in watching the wild-card game, there’s no point in tending to your personal safety. Get into a hot tub without your trusty steel-toed boots. Slam yourself into a door to terrify your kids. Pick up a package of deer meat and fall down the damn stairs. You’re doomed no matter what you do, so you might as well live a little.
When the panic subsides, you’ll see that the Pirates have a puncher’s chance, even if the worst case comes to pass. Post-breakout Gerrit Cole isn’t quite Arrieta, but he’ll still be one of the best pitchers in the playoffs, and Pittsburgh has a good shot at having home-field advantage. Moreover, even though he’s looked invincible lately, Arrieta’s underlying full-season stats say he’s been about as effective as he was last season. That’s not good news, exactly — Arrieta was awesome in 2014, too — but it takes some of the sting out of that intimidating ERA.
In time, you’ll progress to a deeper state of acceptance, one that robs Arrieta of his power to ruin your year. Modern baseball sends mixed messages: six months of establishing which teams were truly the strongest, culminating in a loosely related month of sudden, senseless endings. You can rage against the dying of regular-season significance, or you can resign yourself to the fact that October baseball in the post-Selig era is basically blernsball. It’s fun, but it doesn’t pretend to be fair. The healthiest attitude — if not the easiest to adopt — is a sort of pre-resigned rooting, an acknowledgement of how little October tells us about any team’s true talent combined with a determination to enjoy the insanity anyway.
In your lowest moments, remember that Arrieta-esque starters have been beaten before. The Cubs have won 11 consecutive Arrieta starts, and 15 of his past 16, including that no-hit outing against the NL’s best-hitting team. If his next start were in the wild-card game, he’d be the second pitcher ever to start a playoff elimination game coming off a streak at least that long of team wins in his starts. The first, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, was Kris Medlen, whose Braves won his last 12 regular-season starts in 2012. Medlen pitched pretty well in the inaugural wild-card game, but the Braves lost 6-3 to Kyle Lohse and the Cardinals, done in by three errors and the infield fly rule. If your team is facing Arrieta, root for something similarly strange. Pull for Starlin Castro to turn around at the wrong time, or a wayward Jon Lester pickoff attempt in the 18th inning, or base-stealing specialist Quintin Berry’s second career failed attempt, or a badly aimed arrow. When seasons are decided in microscopic samples, weirdness is the norm.
Thanks to ESPN Stats & Info for research assistance.