PITTSBURGH – The hot, young talent. The emerging ace with the electric stuff. The relentlessly upbeat manager. The giddy relief that comes with washing away years of futility.
Yeah, Andrew McCutchen has seen this script before.
Two years ago, it was star center fielder and the rest of the Pittsburgh Pirates who found themselves as baseball’s new darlings when they crashed the playoffs for the first time in two decades.
Now it’s the Chicago Cubs, whose rebuilding project hit warp speed somewhere between Joe Maddon’s hire last winter and rookie slugger Kris Bryant’s arrival in April.
“They’ve opened a lot of eyes,” McCutchen said. “We were the hype in 2013. Look at what we did. Everybody was on us … now it’s ‘Let’s talk about the Cubs,’ ”
The Pirates can change the subject quickly Wednesday night in the N.L. wild-card game. The winner gets the St. Louis Cardinals in the division series starting Friday.
The clubs that combined for 195 wins both believe they can make a run provided they can survive baseball’s version of a high-wire coin flip.
Heady territory for two franchises that have spent most of this millennium taking turns at the bottom of the N.L. Central.
Those days have long since passed in Pittsburgh, making its third straight playoff appearance. The Cubs hope to say the same thing in Chicago regardless of a history filled with curses – from billy goats to black cats to Steve Bartman – and a World Series drought at 107 years and counting.
The weight of failure, however, hardly appears to be wearing on a team so loose Cy Young candidate Jake Arrieta took to Twitter to tweak the Pirates’ fan base after a parody account warned him of what was coming at what is sure to be a rowdy PNC Park.
Arrieta tweeted back “whatever helps keep your hope alive, just know it doesn’t matter.”
Don’t get the well-bearded 29-year-old who led the majors with 22 wins and posted an 0.75 ERA after the All-Star break – no, that’s not a typo – wrong. He wasn’t guaranteeing victory so much as trying to savor a moment he believed would come even if others did not.
The tall right-hander who never seemed to fit in early in his career in Baltimore has supplanted Jon Lester as Chicago’s No. 1 starter.
When he’s on, Arrieta is borderline unhittable. The Pirates managed a lone single off him in a 4-0 Cubs win on Sept. 27 and Arrieta has allowed four earned runs combined since Aug. 1.
That success has sent his confidence soaring. There isn’t any one thing that’s changed from those difficult years with the Orioles. He simply matured, tweaking his delivery and his mental approach. It’s all about the now. Not the last pitch. Not the next one. This one.
In that sense, Arrieta will face a kindred spirit in Pittsburgh starter Gerrit Cole.
Unlike Arrieta, a late bloomer, Cole has been groomed for this stage from the day the Pirates took him with the first overall pick in the 2011 draft. He hasn’t missed a beat any step of the way and made the All-Star team for the first time this summer while becoming the first Pittsburgh pitcher to reach 19 victories since 1991.
“He respects everything about the game but he fears absolutely nothing,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “That’s a wonderful place to be.”
A destination that took some work for Cole to arrive at. The fire that so visibly fuels him – few pitcher in baseball take their jobs so personally – would sometimes singe Cole during his first two years in the league. Not anymore.
Catchers Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart have learned to quickly decipher when Cole is in need of a reset. At that moment they leap out of their crouch to give the 25-year-old a pep talk.
Such visits are increasingly rare, a testament to Cole’s consistency and the way he’s attacked perhaps his biggest weakness.
“When something would go wrong, he would sometimes channel that into a negative,” Stewart said. “He’s taken that energy and that edge and tried to turn it into a positive.”
Any missteps will be magnified against Arrieta, whose historic second half propelled the Cubs to 97 victories, a number Maddon admitted is “pretty extravagant.”
All it did was earn Chicago a chance at one more.
At some point late Wednesday night or early Thursday morning the team with one of the three best records in the majors will see its season end. Maybe it will be the group whose future is brightening by the day. Maybe it’ll be the group who has shed the upstart label for something more permanent.
Whether it’s fair or not, remains a tossup. Maddon would prefer a best-of-three for this round. Hurdle is OK with the current format, perhaps because he’s become so used to it – the Pirates lost this game last year, at home, to the eventual champion San Francisco Giants.
Both the Pirates and Cubs spent most of the summer stalking but never quite catching the Cardinals. A win provides a second chance.
“There’s a lot of luck involved,” Cole said. “But there’s a lot of little details that matter. And the team that takes care of those the best comes out on top usually.”
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