Channeling Bob Gibson

PITTSBURGH — There are no seismographs that measure the tension of a city … but for two days Pittsburgh seemed tense. This could be a figment of my imagination, of course, but it definitely did seem that wherever I went in the hours leading up to Wednesday’s epic wildcard matchup with the Chicago Cubs, there would be a group of slightly edgy Pirates fans.

“What do you think about the game?” I would ask them and, inevitably, they would offer that bit-lip look of uncertainty before saying something vaguely positive like, “The Pirates have to win.” There would be just the hint of a question mark at the end.

The issue, of course, was Jake Arrieta.

In each of the last two years, the Pirates came upon a do-or-die game in the playoffs and saw a great pitcher take the mound against them. Two years ago, it was St. Louis’ Adam Wainwright, who three times coaxed double plays and choked the Pirates lineup for a 6-1 victory. Last year, it was irrepressible San Francisco star Madison Bumgarner who struck out 10 PIrates and gave up four measly singles and the Giants cruised to an 8-0 victory.

And now in the latest wildcard adventure, they would face Arrieta, the Chicago Cubs ace who lately has been pitching like no pitcher in almost 50 years. Pirates fans tried to be bold. “Be ready for the sea of black,” a handle called Parody Pirate tweeted at Arrieta, adding the hashtag, #CrowdIsGoingToEatYouAlive.

Arrieta’s response was chilling.

“Whatever keeps your hope alive,” he Tweeted back. “Just know it doesn’t matter.”

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There really aren’t any good comebacks after that — it’s a bit like Drago in “Rocky IV” saying to Apollo Creed, “You will lose.” The Pirates and their fans tried to put on a brave face, tried to exude confidence after an extraordinary 98-win season, the best in Pittsburgh since Barry Bonds played left field and, before that, when “We Are Family” blared over the loudspeakers. The largest crowd ever at PNC park wore black and booed Arrieta with the famous Pittsburgh fury that through the years has melted quarterbacks and goaltenders.

But in the end, they were right to feel that tension and sense of doom. On this night, like just about every other night since June, nothing could rattle Jake Arrieta.

* * *

The strange part of the leadup to this game is that the palpable sense of anxiety and fatalism running through Pittsburgh is supposed to be the exclusive property of Chicago Cubs Inc. Fans of other teams are not supposed to feel a sense of doom without the expressed written consent of the Chicago Cubs, Leon Durham and a billy goat. We don’t need to once again go through the 107 years since the Cubs won the World Series or the 70 years since they won a pennant or the many bits of lunacy that have marked the years along the way, from the hypnotist to the black cat to the Wrigley lights to Steve Bartman.

Oh … Steve Bartman. A lifelong Cubs fan. All he ever did was reach up for a foul ball the way fans do.

“If I was (then manager) Dusty Baker,” says Joe Mantegna, actor, writer and star-crossed Cubs fans, “I would have taken that poor kid into the clubhouse and said, ‘You are just going to let this guy take the blame for what just happened? You guys are going to hide behind this guy and let him take the blame for 100 years of failure?

“Of course it wasn’t Bartman. These are the Cubs. It was predestined. If it wasn’t Bartman, a meteor would have hit the mound.”

Yes, this is is how it’s supposed to be for Chicago — fatalism, defeatism, doom and gloom. Only there are so many different things about this Cubs team. They are young — seemingly too young to know better. They are cocky. They are loose. They have a manager in Joe Maddon who always seems to have everything under control. They have a team president, Theo Epstein, who already helped snap baseball’s other great curse, the Red Sox’ Curse of the Bambino.

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And, yes, they have Jake Arrieta. The Cubs will readily admit they had absolutely no idea what they were getting a couple of years ago when they shipped off a couple of players to Baltimore to get Arrieta. Everybody knew that he had good stuff. Everybody knew he’d had almost no success in the big leagues. He was just one of the darts thrown against the wall, one of chances teams take when there isn’t much to lose — the Cubs were terrible then.

He pitched pretty well when he got to Chicago, and then he pitched a little bit better than that, and a little better still. In mid-June of this year, he was 6-5 with a 3.40 ERA, more than respectable numbers. And then, well, something changed. He threw a four-hit shutout against Minnesota, just the second complete game of his career. He threw 122 fierce pitches on a humid day and would not back off. “I got better as the game went on,” Arrieta said matter of factly.

“What he did today,” Minnesota’s Torii Hunter warned, “would shut anybody down.”

That would begin a four-month stretch for the ages, a stretch unmatched, perhaps, since a Cardinals pitcher named Bob Gibson had a 1.12 ERA in 1968. That year he filled the imagination of a 14-year-old kid named Joe Maddon. “I hate to disappoint the Cub nation,” Maddon says. “But I was a Bob Gibson fan. He was outstanding.”

From that Minnesota start until Wednesday night, Jake Arrieta made 20 starts. All 20 were quality starts. He gave up two home runs. He threw two more shutouts, one of them a no-hitter. His ERA was 0.86. The Cubs won 18 of the 20 games. He had not allowed a run in two weeks.

And, perhaps most miraculously of all, Arrieta made Chicago Cubs fans the more confident group going into the win-or-go-home game in Pittsburgh on Wednesday.

* * *

The Pirates bowed to the power of Arrieta before the first pitch was even thrown. A few hours before the game, Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle announced that he would bench the team’s leading home-run hitter, Pedro Alvarez, for a long-time utility player named Sean Rodriguez. The idea was that Rodriguez plays better first base defense than Alvarez. Realistically, just about everyone does. “I wanted to make sure we gave Gerrit (Cole) every opportunity to have the best defensive metrics behind him,” Hurdle said.

Cole is the Pirates’ best starter — and at age 25, he is the pitcher the team is building around. There’s no telling what he was feeling in the moments before the game started. He had said all the right things about anticipating the challenge (“You want to face the best,” he said). His teammates said all the right thing about Cole’s intensity and competitive spirit (“He fears absolutely nothing about the game,” Hurdle said).

But then the moment arrived, and Pittsburgh was lit up behind him, and the stands were black with Pirates shirts … and he looked shaky. Nervous? Too amped up? Who is to say? He fell behind Cubs leadoff batter Dexter Fowler and then elevated a 3-1 fastball that Fowler rocketed to center field for a base hit. And, though, as mentioned, there are no seismographs that measure the tension of a city, it sure felt like the tension in Pittsburgh spiked even higher.

“The leadoff at-bat by Dexter was actually huge,” Maddon would say. “It’s really rare that sometimes you can reflect back on a game of baseball, and the very first hitter of the game can set the tone for the entire thing. You’d almost think that’s crazy. But he did.”

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Fowler then stole second base — Pirates third baseman Josh Harrison might have gotten the tag down in time (very close) but he dropped the ball — and Kyle Schwarber lined a single to left to score the first Cubs run. It was Pittsburgh’s nightmare scenario, two batters in and the Pirates already were down a run against the hottest pitcher since Bob Gibson. Whatever glimmers of hope Pittsburgh fans clung to before the game were already beginning to fade.

Then Arrieta began his surgical procedure. One of the storylines before this game began had been how the younger Cole would handle the pressure of a one-game playoff. But it was Arrieta, not Cole, making his postseason debut. He could have been nervous. He was not. In the first three innings, he faced 10 batters. He got ahead 0-2 against seven of the 10.

The Pirates had no chance. Arrieta mixed 97-mph fastballs with 90-mph sliders with 83-mph curveballs, almost all of them close enough to the corners to make home-plate umpire Jeff Nelson think hard. He wasn’t just beating the Pirates, he was deconstructing them. Somewhere, Baltimore Orioles scouts and executives undoubtedly had to turn off the television rather than watch the pitcher they could not develop.

* * *

The rest was anticlimactic, mostly. In the third, Dexter Fowler again pushed Gerrit Cole until he threw a 96-mph fastball too high in the strike zone; Fowler lined a single to right. Up came Schwarber again — he’s just 22 years old, one of three seemingly nerves-of-steel rookies who started for the Cubs on Wednesday. Cole threw him the dreaded slider that does not slide, and Schwarber swatted it 450 feet into the Allegheny River. They call Schwarber “Hulk.” It was 3-0.

Everyone in the ballpark seemed to understand that this game could go on for several weeks and Arrieta wouldn’t give up three runs.

So the last bits of drama built out of, well, a bit of drama. Arrieta hit two Pirates batters. He hit Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli with a high and tight fastball — Cervelli had to throw himself backwards to avoid the worst of it (the ball brushed the top of his hand). To Pirates fans and some of the Pirates themselves, the pitch looked to have mean intent — though the timing of it made no sense at all. Cervelli was leading off the fifth inning.

An inning later, Arrieta hit Josh Harrison with a breaking ball. None of the Pirates seemed to think that one was intentional — it led to the only Pittsburgh near-rally of the ballgame — but the Pittsburgh fans saw blood. Their boos and jeers turned menacing.

“There’s no way I’m trying to put guys on base with hit batters,” Arrieta would say. “The balls were pretty slick tonight. A couple got away from me.”

The Pirates loaded the bases after Harrison got hit and cleanup hitter Starling Marte scalded a hard ground ball to the left side — a couple of feet left and it might have scored two runs. Instead it was a 6-4-3 double play that ended the inning and the final wisps of Pittsburgh belief.

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Then, next inning, baseball justice being what it is, Pittsburgh’s Tony Watson hit Arrieta in the hip with a pitch, and there was no doubt at all about his intentions. The benches cleared for one of those silly baseball “hold me back!” fights, with the only bit of violence being provided by Pittsburgh’s Sean Rodriguez, who may have taken it upon himself to bait Arrieta into getting himself thrown from the game. He only managed to get himself tossed, at which point he had a sparring match with a Gatorade jug, one that should find a prominent place in Major League Baseball blooper videos for years to come.

When order was restored, Arrieta stole second base — a clear sign that he was taking it all very personally. He dominated the seventh and eighth innings. Then it was the ninth.

“I didn’t want to see anybody in the bullpen,” he would say. “I wanted to finish what I started and be the guy to get the last out. … In an environment like this, you want to have the ball in your hand when the last out is made.”

That was exactly what Joe Maddon wanted too. As the game had progressed, he stopped seeing Jake Arrieta out there pitching. He started to see Bob Gibson. You know, in Bob Gibson’s extraordinary career he started nine games in the World Series. He completed the last eight of them. You couldn’t take him out of a big game, not with a court order. That’s one of the big things Maddon loved about the guy. There was no doubt he would send Arrieta back out to the mound.

“My thought tonight,” Maddon would say, “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.”

And Arrieta finished it off Gibson style — a clean ninth inning and a final pitching line of nine innings, four hits, no walks and 11 strikeouts. Many Pirates fans never saw that last inning — they left after the eighth. A 98-win season ended in mere moments. “Well, sports is hard,” Hurdle said. “Life isn’t fair. You get beat. You move on.”

When it did end, the young Cubs let go, dumping Gatorade on each other on the field while the last remaining Pirates fans stumbled out of the park. In the clubhouse, champagne sprayed everywhere; it looked more like a World Series victory than a win in the Wild Card game, but Theo Epstein’s theory is that they should delight in every moment of this so-far magical season. No one, not even the Cubs themselves, believed this team was ready to do this.

Yes, the champagne must be sprayed. Next comes the loathed St. Louis Cardinals in perhaps the most anticipated short series since Major League Baseball started having short series. The Cardinals won 100 games this year, and they’ve so dominated the Cubs over the last 100 years that the fans refuse to even call their contentious competition a “rivalry.” But, even the most hardened Cardinals fan might concede that these Cubs look different; loose, unattached to the long string of misfortune that has marked history on the North side of Chicago. Also, they have Arrieta.

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