The Pirates enter their weekend series against the Cubs with a magic number of 7 to clinch home field in the Wild Card game. If they win the series 2-1 this weekend, then any combination of three Pirates wins or Cubs losses in the final week would put the Wild Card game at PNC Park. If the Pirates sweep this weekend, then they’d need just one win in their final six games to bring the Wild Card game back home for the third year in a row.
In short, the Pirates now control their own destiny. They can’t even leave the weekend series behind the Cubs in the standings, since they have a 3.5 game lead after their win against the Rockies today.
Of course, it seems lately that none of this will matter, because regardless of where the Wild Card game is played, the Pirates will have to go up against Jake Arrieta. The right-hander has been putting up historical numbers lately, with an 0.86 ERA in 94.1 innings in the second half, spanning 13 starts. Against the Pirates this year, he has an 0.93 ERA in 29 innings.
The Pirates have beat Arrieta once this year, although they didn’t exactly beat him. He gave up one run in seven innings, but A.J. Burnett threw seven shutout innings, and the Pirates won 3-0. Likewise, they lost their last outing against Arrieta, although he didn’t beat them. They tagged him for two runs, one earned, in eight innings. Unfortunately, they lost the game in the 12th inning.
It is possible to beat Arrieta. More accurately, it’s possible to beat the Cubs when Arrieta is pitching, simply by outlasting him. But that’s still a rare feat. The Cubs have lost just one game that Arrieta started since the beginning of July. That’s a 15-1 team record over that stretch when he’s on the mound, which is insane.
There are other hopes involved here. There’s the hope that Arrieta will tire now that he’s up to 216 innings, which is well beyond his 176.2 innings between Triple-A and the Majors last year. But that doesn’t seem to be happening yet. There’s the “Johnny Cueto/Anything Can Happen in the Playoffs” hope. Cueto gave up just one run in 12.1 innings against the Pirates in 2013, but they managed to figure him out in the Wild Card game, with a big assist to the fans at PNC Park.
There’s also the fact that Gerrit Cole has done well against the Cubs, giving the Pirates a chance at staying in this game and trying to outlast Arrieta. Granted, Cole hasn’t been close to being as dominant as Arrieta has lately. No pitcher in baseball can claim that accomplishment. But there’s no reason to think the Cubs will have it easy on the hitting side of things.
This weekend will be a big series, and it could have an impact on where the Wild Card game is played. The Pirates will need every advantage they can get against Arrieta, and that includes winning home field advantage. But even if that happens, they’re still up against a tough challenge by having to face Arrieta in a one-game playoff. And that tough challenge distorts everything that is going on right now — from the importance of this series to the success the Pirates have had all season — and makes it feel at times like the season is already lost. Maybe that feeling would change if the Pirates beat Arrieta on Sunday. But for now, they need to worry about taking at least two games this weekend, so that they can gain that extra advantage in the Wild Card game by having the game in their own home park.
**I’ll be covering all three games this weekend in Chicago, including that dreaded matchup Sunday against Arrieta.
**How Did Chris Stewart Start Hitting For Average After Joining the Pirates? My look at what has led to Chris Stewart’s success at the plate since being traded to the Pirates prior to the 2014 season.
**Ke’Bryan Hayes Named Among Top Prospects in the GCL. Hayes had a great season in the GCL, so it’s no surprise that he was named as one of the top prospects in the league. We had him as our top prospect for the GCL Pirates in our season-ending top 10.