The Wildcard round is baseball’s newest, most exhilarating toy, and this year, it was deeply illustrative of our game in the modern realm. There was euphoria for the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, paragons of front office mastery both, and there was agony for the New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates, franchises that cannot navigate October anymore. These contemporary Cubs and Astros originate from the same gene pool, with wonderful intellectuals building a sustainable, homegrown juggernaut from the ground up. Now, they’re advancing in the playoffs, as their fans continue to dream the improbable dream.
This Cubs team is different. We thought that in April, as Joe Maddon cajoled remarkable results from a young roster, and we thought that all summer, as Chicago braced itself for postseason baseball. Last night, in a raucous PNC Park, deep in America’s industrial heartland, all that hope and belief fizzed and bubbled into something tangible, something finally worthy of unrestricted celebration, as Jake Arrieta bamboozled the Pirates and secured the Cubs’ first playoff win since 2003.
It was billed as a baseball hipster’s dream: the nimble Pirates, fashioned by Neal Huntington and managed by Clint Hurdle, against the upstart Cubs, created by Theo Epstein and managed by Joe Maddon. Two philosophically aligned teams; two division rivals; two cities straddling the border between excitement and paralysing nerves.
The Cubs and Pirates have been going at it for hundreds of years, but rarely have these grand old dames of baseball been so good simultaneously. This Pittsburgh incarnation won more games than any other since 1909, while the Cubs secured more victories than they have since 1935. The Bucs had the second-best record in all of baseball this year; the Cubbies were third.
Thus, in every respect, this was set up as a war of attrition, a winner-takes-all showdown between two teams alike in creation and virtually identical in production. Except, that narrative never played out, and this game was never that close. Not really.
Essentially, Jake Arrieta scotched any such notion, burrowing into his own zone of immense concentration and pitching a stupendous shutout, the first by a Cub in October since 1945. And we all know what happened that year.
This game, this constant oscillation of drama, hinged like so many on the arms of two men, and the subtle juxtaposition between them.
For the Cubs, Arrieta was supremely confident, to the point of serene belief amid the gathering cacophony. After producing the greatest second half by a pitcher in baseball history, he now has an approach striking in its simplicity: put the ball where I want to, and they don’t stand a chance. For nine innings, that was basically the case, as Jake yielded just four hits while striking out eleven, en route to victory.
Arrieta stormed around the field and one could almost see his internal monologue of defiance. A fire raged deep within, but he maintained a cold, calm and calculating visage. He was in command, and nothing was going to stop him reaching the end goal of victory. Not 40,889 screaming fans. Not a bench-clearing brawl. And certainly not the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Meanwhile, for those Pirates, Gerrit Cole was just a little less confident, just a little less assure. And in October, when the merest inches and smallest twitches matter, that was just too much to overcome for Pittsburgh. Cole was animated and ever so slightly agitated from the start. He was human, while a strike-throwing cyborg lurked in the other dugout.
Kyle Schwarber took advantage early, putting the Cubs up with an RBI single in the first, then mashing a long two-run bomb into the Allegheny in the third. The Cubs would add another run in the fifth as Dexter Fowler went yard, but it was hardly necessary. Arrieta was in complete control.
When the Pirates did muster an opportunity, with the bases loaded and one out in the sixth inning, Arrieta induced a sweet double play. Just as the Cubs could feel the ropes at their back, they came out fighting like a heavyweight champion. In previous years, under different regimes, they would’ve crumbled, succumbed to the schoolyard bully. Not anymore. Not this year. Addison Russell flipped adroitly to Starlin Castro, who heaved the ball onto Anthony Rizzo, ending the inning and extinguishing hope in Pittsburgh.
An inning later, following a messy brawl that resembled one last desperate attempt by the Pirates to penetrate Arrieta’s stoicism, the Cubs got another huge double play. From there on out, it was pretty much a stroll to the finish line, which has rarely, if ever, been written about the star-crossed Chicago Cubs.
When Arrieta got Francisco Cervelli to line out softly to Castro on his 113th pitch of the night, the North Siders had their first postseason win in the post-Bartman epoch. More importantly, they took the next step forward in the enchanting quest to win a first World Series in 107 years.
Next up for Chicago? The St Louis Cardinals, a fearsome foe who the Cubs have played 2,361 times since 1892, but never in the postseason. The Cubs are evidently in the mood for rewriting history this year, and the greatest chapter of all just got a few pages nearer.
The Astros continue to amaze. After losing 590 games in the six years between 2009 and 2014, Houston exploded in an orange blur of belief and precocious talent this season. Under the studious tutelage of AJ Hinch, the ‘Stros kept playing their intoxicating brand of ball and kept winning games, even when experts said they couldn’t, even when the odds laughed in their collective face.
All summer, Houston just kept rolling, an enflamed ball of raw talent and brash iconoclasm. On Tuesday, this carefree group of vibrant, fresh-faced youngsters stormed into the thunderous coliseum that is Yankee Stadium and just owned the night. Totally owned it.
This was the Astros’ first playoff game since 2005. This was the largest crowd for any Astros game since 2010. This was a sudden-death fight against the venerated Yankees, at prime time, in New York City, beneath the twinkling lights, before 50,113 sets of eyes. The Astros were supposed to be intimidated. They were supposed to run out of gas. Yet, the opposite happened. They were entirely unfazed, and they seized the moment with an energy and vitality that is impossible to dislike.
The Astros, dressed in lurid orange, were nimble, lithe, bristling with potential. The Yankees, worn down by the heavy pinstripes of history, were tired, heavy-legged, panting to the finish like a limp dog. Greatness occurs at the confluence of talent and bravery. The Yankees know all about that. Well, so do these Houston Astros, who matched impressive skill with the poise and guts required to breeze past the Bronx Bombers in October.
Consider Carlos Correa, the 21-year old shortstop who hit third on the biggest stage of all. He’s never played anywhere like Yankee Stadium; he’s probably never shared any building with 50,000 people before. Consider George Springer and Jose Altuve, who’ve never played a more meaningful game, but still managed to make telling contributions with the glove and bat. And consider Dallas Keuchel, the young ace who made the Yankees look foolish on three days rest, earning comparisons to Greg Maddux and soft-tossing Houston to the ALDS with six innings of three-hit, shutout ball.
On a night when this version of Yankee Stadium was louder than ever, with fans clapping and chanting like times of yore, the Astros rose to the occasion. Colby Rasmus and Carlos Gomez launched solo home runs, and Altuve knocked in another run, while the hosts managed just three hits and manipulated just two men into scoring position, as the light went out on another fruitless season in the Bronx. The Astros’ remarkable victory was confirmed with three flawless innings from the bullpen, and Houston danced a victory jig on the Stadium infield.
In many ways, this was even more dramatic than Moneyball, even more improbable than that cinematic creation. The Astros entered the 2015 season with a $70 million payroll, second-smallest in the Majors. The Yankees, meanwhile, paid their players $219 million. That the former should slay the latter and advance to the American League’s final four is highly indicative of baseball’s changing economic climate. Nowadays, the money a team spends isn’t as important as the people it employs to utilise it. Intellectual firepower within the front office is just as important as superstars on the field. With Jeff Luhnow at the helm, the Astros are a prime example of how to build a Major League Baseball team in this age of parity; their core of cost-controlled, homegrown talent providing a lengthy window of sustainable opportunity.
That window is now firmly ajar. With victory over the mighty Yankees, Houston advances to an ALDS meeting with the reigning Royals. It will be the Astros’ first playoff series in ten years, back when their incumbent shortstop was just 11 and their current ace was 17. That says a lot about the Houston Astros, but it says even more about the shifting landscape of Major League Baseball.