J.A. Happ was brilliant once again on Sunday as his six shutout innings helped push the Pirates to their 98th win and secure home field for Wednesday's Wild Card Game.
"I think it was early tweaks in his delivery," Clint Hurdle said regarding Happ's phenomenal success since joining the club. "It's not something he didn't have before, so he was able to reacquire it."
A more direct delivery and a raised arm slot have created more downward angle on his fastball and improved his overall command. In 63.1 innings with the Pirates, Happ has posted a 1.85 ERA, a 7-2 record and 9.9 K/9. His 1.9 BB/9 is the lowest of his career.
The Pirates now prepare for the monumental task of facing Jake Arrieta in a do-or-die matchup. During his weekly Sunday afternoon meeting with the press, Neal Huntington expressed confidence in the club's advanced scouting and the ace they'll send to the mound.
"Arrieta's a good pitcher, but like every good pitcher, he can be beat," Huntington said. "We like our guy. We consider our guy one of those pitchers that you line up and you feel you've got a 60 percent chance to win the game."
As you'd expect, there is no shortage of confidence among the Pirates' players and coaches, either. Hurdle shook off the notion that his team enters the game an underdog.
"I don't think we're underdogs," Hurdle said. "We believe in what we believe in. External noise is just that."
Francisco Cervelli called Arrieta's season "impeccable" and identified the right-hander's unique release point as the primary challenge in facing him.
"What makes him tough is that he throws the ball from the shortstop," Cervelli said with a wry smile. "He is supposed to throw straight. That should be illegal."
According to BrooksBaseball.com, Arrieta's average horizontal release point is -3.19 feet off center. By comparison, Gerrit Cole's is -2.57.
Unlike Hurdle, Cervelli embraces the underdog label if only because it means Cole is being overlooked.
"This is the thing that I like, because everybody is talking about Arrieta but nobody talks about Cole," Cervelli said. "It's good when nobody says anything. So, we'll see what happens."
Andrew McCutchen downplayed the unique challenge that Arrieta presents, saying that Pirates have faced a lot of good pitchers this year.
"We know what to expect," McCutchen said. "We're just focusing our ourselves and the things we need to do."
Regardless of what happens Wednesday night, the 2015 Pirates have had a special season. They pushed off to an underwhelming 26-24 record in the first two months of the season, before going a stunning 72-39 in the final 111 games.
A big reason for the resurgence was the offense pulling itself out of the early-season doldrums. After a .230/.280/.360 April, they batted .263/.329/.400 the rest of the way.
But the single most important factor was the bullpen. After a poor start, which included a -0.01 win probability added, a 4-11 record and six blown saves in the first two months, the bullpen added 12.38 WPA, posted a 27-5 record and only blew eight more saves the rest of the way.
"If I'd asked any one of you at the end of April if we would be in a position to win 98 games, I don't think there would've been very many takers on this bet," Huntington said. "This club has bounced back and has played really well for a really long period of time."
Finally, not to be overlooked is the starting staff. It's not only that they performed above expectations, but they stayed relatively healthy. The Pirates used only eight starters over the course of the season, the fewest in baseball. More importantly, their top two starters combined for 394.2 innings and they had four pitchers throw a qualified number of innings (162), which ties them for the league lead. In 2013 and 2014, only two Pirates pitchers reached the qualified innings threshold.
So, the Pirates will take Monday off and return on Tuesday for a practice day. PNC is sure to be a snake pit Wednesday night, as Arrieta is already stoking the flames on Twitter with a tweet that has Pirates fans riled up. It was was met by the most perfect possible response from a Doc Emrick parody account.