Before tonight's game, Cubs ace Jake Arrieta taunted Pirates fans, telling them he welcomed a loud, hostile crowd at PNC Park. Tonight he backed up his tough talk, pitching a complete-game shutout as the Cubs ended the Pirates' season, 4-0.
Not much went the Pirates' way. The intimidating atmosphere of 2013, even, was partially absent, thanks to the infiltration of what appeared to be a couple thousand Cubs fans spotting Pirates fans' blackout with white and blue.
The one person who appeared most negatively affected by the environment was Gerrit Cole, not Arrieta. Cole appeared to be amped up in the first, throwing hard but leaving his pitches up. The leadoff batter, Dexter Fowler, singled up the middle. He then stole second as Josh Harrison (who was playing up the middle because of a shift) couldn't hold on to Francisco Cervelli's throw. Then Fowler scored on Kyle Schwarber's single. It could have been much worse, as Cole got Kris Bryant to ground into a double play and avoided further trouble, but the Cubs still finished their half of the first with a 1-0 lead.
The same two batters, Fowler and Schwarber, struck in the third. Fowler hit a one-out single to right, and then Cole threw some sort of weird slider-like thing that stayed up, and Schwarber smashed it to right and out of the stadium.
That put the Pirates in a 3-0 hole, and when Sean Rodriguez's turn in the lineup came up to lead off the bottom of the third, Clint Hurdle lifted him in favor of Pedro Alvarez, as I thought he would. Alvarez promptly struck out. The surprise of Rodriguez being in the lineup turned out to be a red herring, ultimately, as neither Rodriguez's defense nor Alvarez's offense turned out to matter much. (Rodriguez did struggle with a poor throw from Neil Walker at in the first, but that didn't result in a run.)
Fifth inning. Fowler again. Cole served up a four-seamer, and Fowler belted it to right center to give the Cubs a 4-0 lead. Cole fundamentally hadn't looked like himself the whole game, and I'm not sure why he was pitching at that point.
Not that it mattered, really, as Arrieta charged through inning after inning. The TBS strike zone made it look like he was getting all kinds of calls he shouldn't have. TBS' strike zone was probably just a bit tight, though, and Arrieta was hitting near the edges of the zone more often than Cole, who was all over the place.
Not that Arrieta didn't give the Pirates at least a few chances. In the bottom of the fifth, Arrieta hit leadoff batter Cervelli, who then got stranded when Arrieta retired the next three batters. In the sixth, Travis Snider led off with a single, and Arrieta hit another batter, Harrison, with one out. Andrew McCutchen then hit a ball up the middle and reached to load the bases as Addison Russell struggled with it. Arrieta no longer seemed to have his usual command, and it felt like the Bucs had a golden opportunity to get back in the game. Arrieta got Starling Marte to ground into a double play to end the threat, however, and the Pirates couldn't cut into the Cubs' lead.
Tony Watson took over in the seventh and got two quick outs before Arrieta came to the plate. Watson, presumably responding to Arrieta hitting Cervelli and Harrison, hit Arrieta in the hip. I was having pretty brutal connection issues at that time and couldn't follow the exact sequence of events, but benches cleared and Rodriguez tried to throw a punch. He got ejected and ultimately did get to fulfill his dream of striking something with his fist, going nuts on a Gatorade cooler in the dugout. (Arrieta, meanwhile, stole second without a throw.)
In the bottom of the inning, Cervelli led off with a single. But Neil Walker walked back to the dugout visibly frustrated after waving at a slider for strike three, and Aramis Ramirez became the second Pirate in three innings to end a rally by grounding into a double play.
And ... that was it, really, as the Pirates went down relatively quietly in the eighth and very quietly in the ninth. Overall, Arrieta struck out 11 and walked none; the Bucs, meanwhile, went 1-for-10 with runners on and didn't get the job done against a very tough pitcher.
This was an important game, but it was one game, and it's tempting to create narratives and find patterns that might not actually be meaningful. We could look back to the Pirates' struggles against Madison Bumgarner last year and compare them to tonight, and argue that the Bucs don't have what it takes against top-notch starters in do-or-die games. We could note that Arrieta appeared, overall, better prepared and better equipped to win this game than the Pirates did. And to some degree, it's hard to argue those things. Facing pitchers as good as Bumgarner and Arrieta is tough, and while I'm not sure Arrieta is really the superman he's looked like over the past couple months, he obviously looks well equipped indeed to beat whoever he needs to, not just the Bucs.
But what I keep coming back to is that being a Wild Card team is brutal, and that a five-game series against the Cubs (or some lesser team) might have turned out quite differently. But we'll never know. To win 98 games and then to be booted from the playoffs this quickly is tough to take. This was, overall, a hugely successful season for the Bucs, and I'm not sure how many more wins could reasonably have been expected of them. They won fewer games than the Cardinals, but they can't control what some other team does, except by beating them themselves. Now the Bucs are gone, vanquished by a very worthy Cubs team, because the system decided one of the two teams had to be eliminated after one game.
The end of the season, by the way, also marks the ends of the careers of A.J. Burnett and Aramis Ramirez. I tip my cap to them, and I wish them well. It also could mark the ends of the Pirates careers of any number of other players, possibly including Pedro Alvarez, J.A. Happ, Antonio Bastardo, Joakim Soria, Sean Rodriguez, Joe Blanton and Travis Snider. I'll fondly remember those who depart, even the ones who sometimes annoyed me. The last time the Pirates won more than 98 games was more than a century ago. The 2015 Bucs were a great team.