It's not supposed to look this easy, is it?
The Pittsburgh Pirates have been the hottest team in baseball since mid-May, but Jake Arrieta and the Cubs looked like the dominant team Tuesday night in a 5-0 shutout of the Bucs that moved the Cubs to within three games of Pittsburgh for the first wild-card spot. (We've been talking mostly about the second wild card recently, but finishing ahead of the Pirates is certainly possible. Of course, all that would accomplish would be hosting the one-and-done game instead of playing it on the road.)
It was the Cubs' sixth straight win, matching their season-high winning streak. It was their 31st win on the road, which ties the Rangers for the most road wins in baseball this year, and is just one short of the 32 games they won away from Wrigley all of 2014.
Arrieta threw seven strong innings and gave the Pirates just a pair of singles and three walks. The Pirates' first hit wasn't until the fourth inning, by Andrew McCutchen, and he was immediately erased on a fine double play begun by Starlin Castro. No Pirate reached second base until Starling Marte got the second hit off Arrieta in the seventh, and McCutchen walked. Arrieta then retired the next three hitters without incident.
Meanwhile, the Cubs' often-weak offense was feasting off new Pirates acquisition J.A. Happ. Two singles and an error in the first inning loaded the bases and Jorge Soler drew a walk to drive in the first run. Two more scored in the third, on a pair of doubles (Anthony Rizzo and Castro) and a single by David Ross. Castro wound up with two doubles and a couple of nice plays in the field.
Clearly, Castro must have read Rob Huff's article yesterday about being benched and started producing right away. (That's a joke. Do not take that sentence seriously. However, it was nice to see Castro have a big game.)
Rizzo had four hits, including a pair of doubles. The four hits tied his career high and he's now equaled his doubles total from 2014. His career high in doubles is 40, set in 2013; he's certainly got a shot at that and at 25 (he'll turn 26 on Saturday), Rizzo is setting up to have the best year of his career.
Chris Denorfia, who had previously homered twice off Happ, went 3-for-6 and will likely start again in the series finale Wednesday night, facing another Pirates lefthander, Jeff Locke.
Even with all the offense (14 hits, five walks), I'm going to leave the complaint department door open just a wee bit. The Cubs scored five times, more than enough with Arrieta's great pitching, but were just 5-for-16 with RISP and left 15 (!) runners on base. I also thought third-base coach Gary Jones' send of Addison Russell in the second inning was a bad one, even with two out; Russell was just barely around third base when the throws to the plate began and he was out easily in a game that was just 1-0 at the time.
I suppose you can make an argument for that send and really, this is one of the few times I've ever written about Jones, so he must be doing a decent job sending runners. In the end, with the 5-0 win, it didn't matter. But I wouldn't want to see that kind of send in a playoff game, for example.
The Cubs moved to 11 games over .500, their high point of the season. As the team (hopefully) continues to make that high point higher, I would simply point out that each milestone of this nature from 12 games to 35 games over .500 was last set in 2008, the Cubs' best year (in the regular season, at least) since the 1930s. The last time any Cubs team was more than 35 games over .500 was 1945.
Let's hope we have to worry about such things in the future, though I don't think the Cubs will reach such lofty heights this year.
In the meantime, Arrieta cemented his status as the Cubs' "ace," for lack of a better term. He trimmed his season ERA to 2.50 with this outing. Since 1945, only four Cubs pitchers have had a full season with a 2.50 ERA or lower:
Dick Ellsworth, 1963, 2.11 Bill Hands, 1969, 2.49 Greg Maddux, 1992, 2.18 Mark Prior, 2003, 2.43
That's how special the year Arrieta is having is. He won't likely get more than second-banana consideration for the Cy Young Award, as Zack Greinke, Max Scherzer and a couple of others are having better years, but his season is shaping up to be the best season by a Cubs starter since Prior's. And not that individual pitcher wins mean that much anymore, but Tuesday night was Arrieta's 12th win, giving him an outside shot (with probably 11 starts remaining) of winning 20, which has been done by only one Cub since Maddux in 1992 (Jon Lieber, 2001).
Tommy Hunter and Justin Grimm finished up the game without incident. Each allowed one hit; the hit off Grimm was the Pirates' only extra-base knock of the game, a double by Marte.
The Cubs will try to sweep this rain-shortened series Wednesday night. Dan Haren will make his Cubs debut against the aforementioned Pirates lefty, Locke.