PITTSBURGH — Maybe it’s time to stop treating the Chicago Cubs like they’re too young to be here.
The stage they seemingly weren’t ready for now seems hardly big enough to contain them. Not with Jake Arrieta dealing. Not with a group of 20-somethings in the field that play with swagger and confidence. Not with a manager adept at keeping the minds of his rapidly maturing team decidedly clutter-free.
Watch out baseball, the Cubs — yes, the Cubs — are ahead of schedule. And the timetable only seems to be picking up speed for Joe Maddon’s bunch.
Arrieta allowed four hits in nine dominant innings and Chicago rolled to a 4-0 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL wild-card game on Wednesday night. Arrieta struck out 11 without a walk. He also dusted himself off getting plunked by Pittsburgh reliever Tony Watson to send the Cubs to the NL Division Series in St. Louis starting on Friday.
“I’m exhausted. I haven’t felt this way all year,” said Arrieta, who led the majors with 22 wins. “This atmosphere, the energy was unbelievable. Tried to use it to the best of my ability. They were loud, they were really loud.”
Dexter Fowler homered and scored three times for the Cubs. Kyle Schwarber, a rookie who began his season in Double-A, added a towering two-run shot off Pittsburgh starter Gerrit Cole as Chicago raced to an early lead and let Arrieta do the rest.
“Jake told me when we talked last night, he said, ‘You give me a few runs, I’m good,’” Fowler said. “And I said, ‘All right, bro, we’ll see what we can do.’”
The largest crowd ever at PNC Park failed to rattle Arrieta or one of baseball’s youngest teams, one that looked right at home while snapping a nine-game playoff losing streak that dated to the 2003 NL Championship Series.
“You don’t think that these guys are 21, 23 years old, because they don’t play like it,” Arrieta said. “They have elevated their play to a level that’s beyond their years, and it’s one of the big reasons we’re here.”
Sounds a lot like the Houston Astros, by the way. They opened this year’s postseason Tuesday night by winning the AL wild-card game at Yankee Stadium.
Pittsburgh was knocked out after finishing second in the majors with 98 victories this year. Last season, the Pirates also were shut out on four hits at home in the wild-card game, losing to Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants.
“Two years in a row we’ve drawn a tough bull,” manager Clint Hurdle said.
The bearded, 29-year-old Arrieta, still unbeaten since July 25, stretched his remarkable second half — in which he posted an 0.75 ERA — into the opening round of the playoffs. He threw the first complete-game shutout for the Cubs in the postseason since Claude Passeau tossed a one-hitter in the 1945 World Series against Detroit.
Arrieta even laughed off a weird sequence in the seventh when Watson’s fastball hit him in his left side. The benches and bullpens cleared when Watson was issued a warning, leading to little more than a few heated exchanges along the first base line.
Pirates utility player Sean Rodriguez, who’d already been pulled, was ejected and proceeded to give an unsuspecting water cooler a series of one-two combinations, eventually sending it tumbling to the ground.
“It’s two teams battling, grinding it out, supporting their own guys, and sometimes those things happen,” Arrieta said. “But we moved past it, and after that point it was just baseball as usual.”
And Arrieta was basically unhittable, as usual.
Hurdle shelved slugger Pedro Alvarez — whose 27 homers led the team but whose 23 errors made him a defensive liability — in favor of more sure-handed Rodriguez. Hurdle pointed to the athleticism Rodriguez brought as a major factor, figuring the Pirates would need to get creative to score against Arrieta rather than hope Alvarez runs into the kind of mistake Arrieta has avoided nearly all season.
Maddon took the opposite approach, starting Kris Bryant in left and Schwarber in right and Tommy La Stella at third — positions each had played only sparingly during the regular season — because it was the lineup that presented the most firepower.
Did it ever.
Chicago took a 1-0 lead two batters into the game when Fowler led off with a single, stole second and scored on a single to left by Schwarber.
The two hooked up again in the third. Fowler singled with one out and Schwarber turned an 88 mph slider from Cole into a massive two-run shot that appeared destined for the downtown Pittsburgh skyline before disappearing over the stands in right field.
“I watched,” Schwarber admitted with a laugh.
The blast drained whatever juice remained from a crowd that spent the buildup to the showdown between the teams with the second and third best record in the majors trying to get a rise out of Arrieta on Twitter. All it did was fire him up, tweeting “whatever helps keep your hope alive, just know, it doesn’t matter.”
Maddon has preached a “keep it simple” approach since taking over last winter. When Arrieta is on the hill, Maddon’s job tends to get pretty easy.
Arrieta retired 10 straight at one point, his only real wobbles coming in the sixth and seventh. Pittsburgh loaded the bases with one out behind a single, a hit batter and an error.
Starling Marte’s sharp grounder, however, rolled right to Addison Russell at shortstop. A toss to second and a throw to first later to complete the double play, and Arrieta and the rest of his teammates were pumping their fist on the way back to the dugout.
The team with the best road record in the majors this season hardly fazed by the stakes or the weight of 106 years of postseason futility.
The Pirates, meanwhile, head into the offseason after a brief nine-inning stay. Last fall it was Bumgarner and the Giants who silenced the masses in an 8-0 whitewash on their way to winning the World Series.
This time it was Arrieta’s turn, perhaps a more alarming development considering the Pirates will spend a large portion of the next decade trying to keep up with Schwarber, Bryant and Russell as well as the Cardinals in the hyper-competitive NL Central. St. Louis led the majors with 100 wins.
“Well, sports is hard,” Hurdle said. “Life’s not fair. You go out and play. You get beat, you move on.”
Cubs: Chicago went 8-11 this year against the Cardinals, their longtime rival. John Lackey is set to start the opener for St. Louis against Chicago’s Jon Lester. The two were teammates on the 2013 Boston Red Sox team that won it all.
“Come Friday, we’re not friends anymore,” Lester said, laughing.