Rozner: Young Cubs take another wild step
You can't blame the Cubs for thinking this one was over before it started.
The way Jake Arrieta has thrown the ball the last three months, advancing past the Pirates seemed a fait accompli.
It was all that and more.
The rookies were brilliant and the Cubs moved on to the NLDS against St. Louis with a 4-0 victory Wednesday night at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, which was hosting its third consecutive wild card game, another cruel finish for the home team but a sweet glimpse into what the future holds for the young Cubs.
For them, however, the future is now.
"We haven't done anything yet," said Anthony Rizzo. "We thought we would be here and we thought we could go far this year. That's what we intend to do."
The first step was a season in which their own management hoped they could play a game or two over .500, and instead they won a whopping 97 games, good enough only for a chance to play in the wild card game.
They took the next step Wednesday night when they took down a 98-win Pirates team that was talented enough to win the World Series, but had the misfortune of running into the hottest pitcher on the planet.
The next step is the NLDS, which begins Friday night in St. Louis.
While Joe Maddon loaded his lineup with bats -- putting Kyle Schwarber in right and Kris Bryant in left -- Pirates manager Clint Hurdle loaded his lineup with gloves, sitting Pedro Alvarez, Aramis Ramirez and Michael Morse in favor of players who can actually bend over and pick up the baseball.
Ironically, there were two misplays in the first inning and it helped the Cubs get on the board.
Dexter Fowler led with a single and should have been out stealing, but third baseman Josh Harrison took the throw at second while in the shift and dropped the ball.
After the Cubs took a 1-0 lead against Gerrit Cole on an RBI single by Schwarber, Rizzo later reached on an error, a ball in the dirt that first baseman Sean Rodriguez -- in for defense -- should have been able to scoop.
In the third, Schwarber got his second hit in as many postseason at-bats when he jumped on a 2-1 pitch and blasted it into the river with Fowler aboard for a 3-0 Cubs lead.
In the bottom of the inning, Alvarez hit for Rodriguez, who never batted in the game. His entire contribution to the contest was throwing a cowardly punch and getting tossed in the seventh after Arrieta was hit and the benches emptied.
In the fifth, Fowler smoked a one-out homer to give the Cubs a 4-0 lead, giving Fowler 3 hits and 3 runs scored in his first 3 at-bats.
While Cole struggled to find the corners, Arrieta displayed the entire arsenal, and the game was all but over after Schwarber's home run.
An Addison Russell error in the sixth loaded the bases, but Russell came right back on the next play and turned a double play to end the inning.
After moving to third, Bryant backhanded a hard-hit ball and turned a double play in the seventh, the rookies -- including Schwarber -- showing their mettle in the toughest moments of the game.
For most of the night, Arrieta was brilliant. His power fastball was ferocious with movement, spotting it wherever he wanted. It was darting and sinking, and his two-seamers were effective against righties and lefties.
His curve was sharp, the change-up obliterating and his slider -- probably the best in the National League -- devastating.
With the ability to throw up, down, in and out with all four pitches, it's more like having 16 different options, before you even consider the way he changes speeds with all of his pitches.
Four hits, no walks, 11 whiffs and another complete-game shutout. Arrieta was dominating -- again.
After such a brilliant season, you wonder if we're about to see Madison Bumgarner, circa 2014, when Bumgarner threw a shutout at PNC Park in the wild card game and then carried the Giants all the way to a World Series title.
With 4 wins and a save, Bumgarner fired 52 postseason innings on top of the 218 he tossed during the regular season, and now Arrieta is in a similar zone after throwing 229 innings during the regular season.
"He's in such great shape and prepares so hard, he looks as strong now as he did in April," Bryant said. "He's as strong in the ninth inning as he is in the first inning.
"He knows the stage and it doesn't affect him. He can really carry us a long way and I'm glad he's on our team."
He's on a team headed to the NLDS -- and maybe a stage considerably bigger than that.
• Hear Barry Rozner on WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.