Two wild-card games in a row, 18 scoreless innings against two bona fide aces, and the Pirates’ season ended early again.
Wednesday night it was Jake Arrieta, striking out 11 in a complete-game victory. Arrieta pitched a masterpiece, but Kyle Schwarber’s home run and three RBIs played a big role, Dexter Fowler’s night helped, and if the game wasn’t interesting enough the benches cleared due to a hit-by-pitch tit-for-tat.
1. Jake Arrieta
His line: Nine innings, four hits, no runs, no walks, 11 strikeouts. He extended his scoreless innings streak to 31 in a row, including the end of the regular season. He located his fastball, had a great curveball and took advantage of a wide strike zone from home-plate umpire Jeff Nelson.
“He actually didn’t seem as pinpoint that night in Chicago,” said Andrew McCutchen, referring to the night Arrieta took a no-hitter into the seventh against the Pirates at Wrigley Field Sept. 27. “He seemed a little more on in Chicago.”
Someone asked Arrieta a question along the lines of Arrieta not having his best stuff. He responded, “I’m not sure what game you were watching.”
Asked what Arrieta’s pitch limit was, manager Joe Maddon said “Infinity.”
“Two years in a row we've drawn a tough bull,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “We've pushed a couple times late, squared a couple balls up and they've turned them into double plays. Arrieta was ahead of almost every count through five. The ball-to- strike sequencing didn't give us a chance to get many offensive counts.”
Arrieta was tough through five innings, but started to crack in the sixth, falling behind batters. He eventually loaded the bases with one out, but a double play saved him.
Asked if he’d ever seen anything like what Arrieta was doing, Maddon said, “Bob Gibson, I was a Gibson fan growing up, and I hate to disappoint the Cub nation, but I was a Gibson fan growing up. He was outstanding. My thought tonight was to attempt to take Jake Arrieta out of that game would have been tantamount to taking Bob Gibson out of that situation or a World Series performance. So I would say in my experience as a kid growing up, I saw Mr. Gibson out there tonight.”
2. Gerrit Cole
"It burns. It stings. It sucks,“ Cole said. ”All the negative things you can come up with, that's how it feels right now."
Cole was erratic in the first and allowed a run. He later made two mistakes, one a cement-mixer slider to Kyle Schwarber and one a fastball to Dexter Fowler.
“That first-inning run, those kind of things happen,” Cole said. “So be it. The mistakes later, with the two home runs, were tremendously unfortunate."
”We executed the game plan to a tee today,“ Schwarber said. ”Dex got on base pretty much every time except once. Just trying to hit the ball hard and layoff inside. Don't chase. Try to make solid contact.“
3. The benches-clearing gathering
Arrieta hit two batters: Francisco Cervelli on the finger and Josh Harrison in the shoulder, but with a breaking ball.
”You've got a pitcher that's dotting everything up, throwing four pitches for strikes and Cervelli gets pitched hot up top, so I don't think anybody was a fan of that,“ Hurdle said. ”Josh got hit with a breaking ball. That's probably just a pitch that got away.“
So with two outs and nobody on, Tony Watson hit Arrieta with the first pitch in the hip. Arrieta had some things to say, walking with Cervelli up the baseline. Watson suddenly ran toward Cervelli and Arrieta -- he was later to say he did so to prevent Cervelli from getting himself thrown out of the game.
”It is what it is,“ Watson said. ”Intent or not, anywhere up near the head, we don’t like that. Neither team likes that.“
But the dugouts and bullpens emptied and a scrum formed -- Cole found his way into the middle of it. At some point, David Ross got his arm around Sean Rodriguez’s neck, which caused Rodriguez to get angry and swing at Ross. He later swung at the Gatorade cooler in the dugout.
”I was very heated,“ Rodriguez said. ”Obviously wrong, definitely not the example that you want anybody to see.“
Take a look at how packed PNC Park responded to Jung Ho Kang making his return for the National League wild-card game.
Clint Hurdle got the question right out of the blocks at his news conference today, as he surely expected, and had an answer ready.
“Did anybody win the lineup pool?” he responded when asked why he started Sean Rodriguez rather than Pedro Alvarez at first base. Some media members raised their hands. “I like the fact that there are only three of us thinking the same way. That means maybe you watched every inning of every game this year, as I did.”
Alvarez hit 27 home runs this season and has the most raw power of anyone on the team, but made 23 errors and was the worst defensive first baseman in baseball in his first year at the position.
“Late baseball like this, fall baseball, it’s about pitching and defense for me,” Hurdle said.
Rodriguez hit .246 with a .281 on-base percentage this season, but improved after Aug. 1, hitting .333/.385/.485 in 79 plate appearances. He is the superior defender at first base and routinely replaced Alvarez in the late innings this season when the Pirates had a lead.
Joe Maddon, meanwhile, went for offense, putting Kyle Schwarber in right and Kris Bryant in left while starting left-handed hitting Tommy La Stella at third. La Stella has 12 career games, six starts, at third.
“Pedro’s a big bat,” said Josh Harrison, the only Pirate available to the media before tonight’s game, at a news conference. “We know at some point tonight he’s going to be ready to be called upon. But that’s what makes our team so good is we’ve got a guy like Sean coming in, and we’ve got full faith in him as well.”
Alvarez is 2 for 17 with a homer against Arrieta. Rodriguez has never faced Arrieta. Michael Morse is 2 for 9 with a double against Arrieta and Aramis Ramirez, another first-base option, is 2 for 19.
[Alvarez and Ramirez] in particular have had some challenges against this guy,” Hurdle said.
There is no version of this where Hurdle could make a “right” or “wrong” decision. By putting his best defense on the field -- “We're putting our best pitcher on the mound, want to put our best defensive team behind him and find a way to scratch out one more run than the other team,” he said -- he is acknowledging the likelihood of a low-scoring game and taking steps to avoid having an Alvarez error decide it. He is also acknowledging the fact that Arrieta has allowed two homers since June 21, a span of 147 innings. And Alvarez will be available to pinch-hit, either late if the game is close or early if there are men on base and the Pirates fall behind.
But not giving him three plate appearances eliminates the chance that Alvarez could run into one and possibly split what could be a close game wide open. Rodriguez has hit better since August, but in a small sample size, and his body of work indicates that Alvarez is the better offensive option.
Here is the Pirates lineup for tonight's N.L. wild-card game:
Gregory Polanco RF
Josh Harrison 3B
Andrew McCutchen CF
Starling Marte LF
Francisco Cervelli C
Neil Walker 2B
Jordy Mercer SS
Sean Rodriguez 1B
Gerrit Cole RHP
• Pirates going for speed and defense over power potential. Harrison in for Aramis Ramirez. Rodriguez in for Pedro Alvarez.
• Rodriguez, a defensive specialist, was selected to start at first over Alvarez and Michael Morse. Rodriguez is batting .246 with a .281 on-base percentage this season. He is batting .333 in 79 plate appearances since Aug. 1.
Dexter Fowler CF
Kyle Schwarber RF
Kris Bryant LF
Anthony Rizzo 1B
Tommy La Stella 3B
Starlin Castro 2B
Miguel Montero C
Addison Russell SS
Jake Arrieta RHP
Behold, the Pirates’ wild-card roster:
Gerrit Cole (starter)
Francisco Liriano (L)
Antonio Bastardo (L)
Tony Watson (L)
Pedro Alvarez (L)
Pedro Florimon (S)
Neil Walker (S)
Gregory Polanco (L)
Travis Snider (L)
There are no real surprises here other than perhaps the omission of lefty Bobby LaFromboise, who might have been useful against Kyle Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo or Miguel Montero. Lefties were 3 for 19 with eight strikeouts against him this year, but Jason Heyward also just hit a grand slam against him when he was brought in for a left-on-left matchup.
Others left off: Jeff Locke, Rob Scahill, Vance Worley, Travis Ishikawa, Jaff Decker.