PITTSBURGH -- Pause just for a moment this morning and look at your surroundings. Find a piece of Cubs memorabilia or clothing to look at (and don't say you don't have one within six feet of you, of course you do). And understand that what you saw Wednesday night, the Cubs' 4-0 National League wild-card win over the Pirates, began to slay many of the postseason dragons that have breathed baseball fire at us for... well, for a long, long, long time.
Wednesday night was the 25th Cubs playoff game I've attended in person. And I've been at Cubs postseason games that not only are important in Cubs lore, but in major-league history. You know the games. This one. And this one. You don't have to click on those links, you just know. They are seared into your soul.
Jake Arrieta is our soul-mender. He was utterly magnificent in throwing the first-ever postseason shutout with double-digit strikeouts and no walks. Here's more on Jake's performance:
Arrieta: 3rd 10+ K postseason game in #Cubs history. Kerry Wood - 11 in Game 1 of 2003 NLDS Orval Overall - 10 in Game 5 of 1908 WS— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) October 8, 2015
He was also the center of controversy late in the game. I'll get to that, but there is so much about this game that you want to re-live. Right? I sure do.
Dexter Fowler started to take the huge PNC Park throng (40,889, largest crowd in the ballpark's history) out of the game with a first-inning leadoff single. He stole second on a very close play and Kyle Schwarber singled him in. There might have been more scoring that inning, but Kris Bryant hit into a double play.
That's when Jake got to work. Did you have thoughts of a postseason no-hitter? A little too much to ask, probably, but those thoughts ended three batters in when Andrew McCutchen singled. Well, that just made Jake mad. Do not make Jake Arrieta mad! He retired the next 10 Pirates, five by strikeout, the stuff just as filthy as we've seen most of this season.
Fowler's second at-bat resulted in another single, and then Schwarber did this:
As you might have seen from my tweets, I was sitting on the third-base line, about 15 rows off the field, just past third base. That majestic shot cleared the stands, and might have bounced into the Allegheny River, as you heard Pat Hughes' call on that video. The last time the Cubs were at PNC, in September, Schwarber hit a foul ball that hit a Pirates Charities sign that's behind the seats in the right-field corner. That must have got him to thinking this:
Theo said Schwarber called his shot... told Theo a couple weeks ago he'd put one in the river off Cole in this game— Fan Of 98-Win Team (@TheBlogfines) October 8, 2015
It happened. Yes, it happened. That one really silenced the crowd, which had all been issued black "Let's Go Bucs" towels on entry and had been asked to wear black to "Black Out" PNC Park, which got me wondering: How do you see black towels waving above a crowd all dressed in black? (Answer: you don't, not like you can see the white towels normally handed out for games like this, and besides, Pirates fans had little reason for cheering anyway.)
That inning also might have produced more runs, but with Bryant on base and one out, Anthony Rizzo hit a little flare into short left field. Jordy Mercer deked Bryant -- you might not have seen this on the broadcast, but from my seat I could see Mercer make a bit of a fake before he caught the ball. Bryant must have thought it was going to drop because he got caught too far off base and was doubled off. Many called it a TOOTBLAN, but really, it was a nice defensive play by Mercer.
Two innings later, the Cubs added a fourth run on Fowler's long home run to right, just the second time all year Pirates starter Gerrit Cole had allowed two homers in a game. The blast gave Fowler this distinction:
So it's 4-0 and we're halfway through and that's when controversy began. A Jake pitch got away high and inside and hit Francisco Cervelli. The crowd got loud. They're already unhappy with the Cubs for the Chris Coghlan/Jung Ho Kang incident. Jake retired the next three hitters to move the game to the sixth.
Clint Hurdle decided to lift reliever Antonio Bastardo for pinch-hitter Travis Snider leading off the sixth. Snider singled and after Kris Bryant caught, then bobbled, then caught for good a line drive off the bat of Gregory Polanco, Arrieta hit Josh Harrison on an 0-1 pitch.
Now, if you think that was intentional, go back to Baseball 101. You're leading a winner-take-all game 4-0 in the sixth, there's already a runner on base and you want to put another one on with McCutchen coming up?
Uh-uh. No way. Not intentional. But that revved up the crowd, another thing you really don't want. I don't think I have ever heard a ballpark that loud. Hours later, my ears were still ringing like I'd been at a rock concert.
McCutchen hit a potential double-play ball to Addison Russell, who booted it. Bases loaded and the crowd, somehow, got even louder. They sensed a chance to get back in the game with Starling Marte at the plate.
It took just two pitches for Russell to get redemption. Marte hit a sharp grounder that Russell snared, not an easy play by any means, and started an inning-ending double play. The feeling I'd felt so many times when a Cubs postseason rally failed and the air got sucked out of Wrigley Field was palpable in Pittsburgh.
With two out in the top of the seventh and no one on base, this happened (the video begins with the two batters Jake hit with pitches):
You can see Dexter Fowler in the middle of that, along with Anthony Rizzo trying to get in -- to make peace, perhaps.
I have to say this: hitting Arrieta was utter nonsense. I could use a stronger profane word, but, you know... no profanity in recap threads. The Pirates were trying to stir things up, it would appear, and maybe do something that would get Jake tossed from the game. He was quickly escorted away from the scrum by one of the umpires. The only player ejected, apparently, was Sean Rodriguez of the Pirates, who had been pulled for a pinch-hitter in the third inning. That led to Rodriguez punching a Gatorade cooler in the Pirates dugout, and as is often the case in this age of social media, the cooler immediately got its own Twitter account (amusement level: mild).
After all of that was sorted out, Jake stole second base without a throw. It was just the seventh postseason stolen base ever by a pitcher. Here are the other six:
And then Jake returned to the mound to finish his masterpiece. Cervelli singled leading off the eighth, but the inning ended when Aramis Ramirez hit into a double play.
That's something we saw fairly often with A-Ram as a Cub; he did it 120 times in blue pinstripes, including five times in the postseason. Turns out that was his final big-league at-bat, as he's announced his retirement. I wish him well. He was a big part of the Cubs for nearly nine seasons and ends his career with, among other things, 239 Cub home run, sixth in franchise history.
Pinch-hitter Michael Morse singled with one out in the eighth, but was stranded as Arrieta finished the inning with his 11th K. Some seats around me started to empty out; about half the row behind me was abandoned. Russell singled with two out in the ninth, but was thrown out on a nice play by Marte to end the inning.
At no time did anyone get up to throw in the Cubs' bullpen. This was all Jake's game, and it took just 10 ninth-inning pitches to send the Cubs faithful in the crowd, I'd estimate perhaps 5,000, more than 10 percent, into ecstasy. McCutchen hit a comebacker. Marte grounded to third. And on the fifth pitch of his at-bat, Cervelli hit a soft line drive right at Starlin Castro and the celebration began:
There are games at Wrigley Field where I don't think I've seen as many "W" flags as were at PNC Wednesday night. Cubs fans gathered behind the visitors' dugout to salute Arrieta, who was being interviewed on the postgame show. They chanted Fowler's name, though he didn't appear.
As I said earlier... take a moment, sometime today, perhaps while you're reading or re-reading this, and just think about what you saw Wednesday night. It was special to me to see it in person, to see the Cubs' nine-game postseason losing streak ended, emphatically, and though it doesn't officially count as a "streak" since this was a playoff game, the Cubs have now won nine consecutive games, seven of them on the road.
I want to take a moment to salute the Pirates and their fans. The Bucs are an excellent team, as we saw all year. McCutchen is one of my favorite players to watch, when he's not playing against the Cubs. Cole is a wonderful pitcher who the Cubs were able to solve. As I noted before this game: their guy is very good. But our guy was better. Pirates fans and everyone in town could not have been friendlier or more welcoming, perhaps the best experience I've ever had at a Cubs away postseason game. A tip o' the Cubs cap to you, ladies and gentlemen of Pittsburgh, you're first-rate. And all of them I spoke to, every one, said: "Now go beat those Cardinals!"
Which the Cubs certainly intend to do, and as I've written before, have proven they can do over the last month. Later this morning, I'll have a look back at all 19 games the two clubs played against each other this season.
I'd also like to say something to all those on Twitter Wednesday night who criticized me for beginning to tweet the number of outs remaining when the bottom of the eighth began, starting with six. Here's one sample:
@bleedcubbieblue someone with no sense of history would post "four outs"— Matt Rose (@MRG7890) October 8, 2015
There aren't many, I'd say, who have more of a sense of Cubs history than I do. And I understand the Cubs' postseason history hasn't been good in this regard. But you know what? This is exactly the kind of thing this franchise has to shed, has to get rid of, has to eliminate from its thinking forever. This team isn't those old Cubs who blew postseason games in jaw-dropping fashion.
No, emphatically no! This is Jake Arrieta's team. This is Kyle Schwarber's team. This is Dexter Fowler's team, Anthony Rizzo's team, the team that won 97 games and does not fail in situations like this. In my view, we have to embrace winning, not fear failure. Damn right I'm going to tweet outs remaining in potential clinching games!
A bit later this morning, I'll head out of a town that has many happy memories for me (beyond this game, I was at the 1984 division-clincher at old Three Rivers Stadium) and point my car toward St. Louis, where I'll attend Games 1 and 2 of the NLDS against the Cardinals. Jon Lester goes for the Cubs Friday against John Lackey, who's been tough on the Cubs this year. (Though note! Lester got his first big-league hit off his old Boston teammate Lackey last July, and had three hits in 11 at-bats against St. Louis during the 2015 regular season.)
Winning Wednesday night also means this:
#Cubs Maddon: "The most important thing is we get to play a game at Wrigley. That was important to me."— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) October 8, 2015
Who knew? This baseball genius, Joe Maddon, who never lived in nor played in Chicago, and managed just three games at Wrigley Field before 2015, gets it. Oh, yes, he understands exactly what it means for us to have at least one more game in the Friendly Confines in this magical, fantastical, wonderful season.
Here's what we have coming up at BCB today. At 10 a.m. CT Russ La Croix has Heroes & Goats from the wild-card game. (I think you can guess who's at the top of the podium.) At noon CT I'll have my look at every Cubs/Cardinals game from 2015. And at 1:30 CT there will be a game thread for the two American League division-series games; they begin with the first pitch in Toronto for Blue Jays/Rangers at 2:37 p.m. CT.
Cub Tracks, which normally runs Thursday mornings, is being pushed back due to the late-night ending of Wednesday's win and we'll have a special edition here Friday morning, with all the links covering the wild-card game.
11 more wins to a World Series title. Damn right I'm counting them down.