Life just isn’t fair for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
They had a terrific season in which they won over 90 games; but just by sheer geographical coincidence they were stuck in the division with the team with the best record in baseball.
And what is their reward?
They get to play in a winner-take-all Wild Card game against another National League Central opponent. Oh, and they have to face a pitcher that dominated them all season.
Sounds like the situation the Pirates will be in against Jake Arrieta of the Chicago Cubs on Wednesday, right?
Close, it was the position they were in two years ago against Johnny Cueto of the Cincinnati Reds. Many fans wondered how their club would figure him out and avoid an early exit.
Before that game, Cueto had the Pirates’ number that year the way Arrieta did this season. Pirates hitters scratched out three hits and one run against the right-hander in their previous two matchups that season. Cueto even pitched eight innings of one-hit ball early that season at PNC Park, similar to how Arrieta did in 2015. For his career, Cueto is 18-4 with a 2.13 ERA in 28 starts against the Pirates.
But then Cueto took the mound on Oct. 1, 2013 in a sold- and blacked-out PNC Park.
And in his biggest start against Pittsburgh he could not handle the spotlight or the crowd, and folded against the Pirates.
The crowd of over 40,000 people, waving black flags and towels akin to the Terrible Towel, was loud and intimidating on that fall night. A second inning solo home run by outfielder Marlon Byrd to give the Pirates an early lead made them even louder. Suddenly, 20 years of frustration by the home crowd of watching what was quite frankly embarrassing baseball between 1993 and 2012 reached a boil and erupted.
“Cue-to! Cue-to!” they chanted in harmony. They got louder with each pitch, until he had a two ball, one strike count on catcher Russell Martin with one out in the inning.
Of course, what happens next is legendary in Pittsburgh-sports lore.
As Cueto took the mound, the ball trickled out of his glove and rolled towards first base. He picked the ball up, and the chants grew even louder. He went through his motion and delivered a pitch down the heart of the plate that Martin launched into the left field bleachers. Cueto did not recover, and was pulled in the fourth inning after giving up four runs on eight hits and no strikeouts.
Now Arrieta is coming to town. The unbeatable pitcher that stifled the Pirates all season to the tune of a 3-1 record, 0.75 ERA and 33 strikeouts is what stands between the Pirates and the NLDS.
Arrieta’s breakout season of historic-proportions has been well documented. His combination of a 12-1 record and 0.75 ERA after the All-Star Break is unprecedented in major league history. His curveball turned into his unhittable strikeout pitch. He controlled the strike zone, and averaged less than two walks over nine innings this season.
But he has also pitched more than he ever has in a season, too. His innings are by far the most in his career, and is the most in baseball this season. He has thrown 100 pitches or more 23 times in 2015. He has shown no signs of slowing down yet, but the fatigue could catch up to him.
Arrieta could easily go out and continue his run of brilliance and shut down the Pirates the way he has done all season. Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants made doing so look easy last year, after all. But Bumgarner had won two World Series prior to that game; Arrieta has never thrown a pitch in the playoffs.
Saying he can handle the magnitude of the situation is one thing, but going out and backing that claim up is an entirely new animal. He may be as cool as a cucumber when he goes out there, but the playoffs have a funny way of messing with pitchers. Clayton Kershaw is a good example of a guy who turns into a completely different pitcher when the lights grow brighter.
Can lightning strike twice for the Pirates? The PNC Park crowd during the 2014 Wild Card game was not as loud as the 2013 one, so can they revert back to the volume they collectively pumped out in 2013 that got under Cueto’s skin?
Arrieta said on Twitter he needs the place to be “LOUD.”
Be careful what you wish for, Jake.