Now that the Houston Astros and Dallas Keuchel have made quick work of an uninspired Yankees team, MLB fans have one more round of one-and-done wild card fun to look forward too tonight.
Whereas the Yankees and Houston were both considered WS long shots entering these playoffs, the NL wild card features two squads with a legit chance to make some noise.
The Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs will face off in Pittsburgh for the right to advance to the NLCS, but both squads should be rightfully pissed off that they have to face each other and on top of that, in a winner-take-all battle.
These National League Central powers have been slugging it out all season and are both Top 5-caliber National League teams. Unfortunately, so is NL Central Division winner and perennial playoff power St. Louis, who won an MLB-best 100 games.
Pittsburgh ended the regular season with MLB's second-best record and Chicago with the game's third-best. That doesn't get them much around these parts, because even if they win the wild card game, by the time the National League Championship Series picture develops, only one of those three NL Central powers will be standing as the winner of this wild card torture will meet the mighty Cardinals next.
Joe Maddon's Cubbies are favored by many baseball heads because its been over 100 years and people are just ready to see the Cubs win a c'hip.
Also, the baseball world is enamored with the emergence of Cubs ace Jake Arrieta and deservedly so. Arrieta had the best statistical second-half performance in MLB history, posting a 0.75 ERA after the All-Star break and finishing a blazing 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA in 229 innings pitched. Before his breakout campaign, the 30-year-old Arrieta had never pitched more than 156.2 innings or won more than 10 games in his six-year career.
He’ll probably rain on Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw’s little Cy Young fest (He’s won three in the past four seasons) and that’s impressive in a season that saw Kershaw become the first pitcher since Randy Johnson (2000-02) and Curt Schilling (2002) to K over 300 batters.
Don’t count out the pesky Pirates who will be boosted by the energy and spirit of a sea of black and yellow bandana-waving fanatics. That can take you a long way in one game, but Chicago has proved to be road warriors – the best in baseball in fact -- as their home and away records don’t vary much.
Also, the Pirates have an ace of their own in Gerrit Cole. Cole went 19-8 during the regular season and solidified his status a reliable, consistent force.
Cole also has an advantage in playoff experience. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 amateur draft went 1-1 with a 2.45 ERA in two playoff starts for the Pirates during the 2013 NLDS against the Cardinals.
Cole did not start last year's 8-0 Wild Card Game loss to San Francisco because Pirates manager Clint Hurdle opted to pitch him in the regular-season finale in hopes of catching St. Louis for the NL Central title. It backfired and after a long, successful season Pittsburgh was one-and-done. I can’t see Andrew McCutchen, Cole and those guys allowing themselves to win 98 games and lose in the wild card game for the second consecutive season.
The Cubs and their array of young talent can win the game if everything clicks right, but progression in baseball is about paying dues and it’s time for Pittsburgh to fulfill some potential and get deep in a playoff run. This is as good a team as they've had since the Barry Bonds 80s.
A young, funky Cubs bunch led by rookie sensation Kris Bryant and veteran slugger Anthony Rizzo will be ripping up the NL Central for years to come. So if they fall short, there's always next year.