MLB postseason preview: National League Wild Card game — Cubs at Pirates

With the MLB postseason about to begin, we’re previewing the wild card games that get the playoffs underway. We previewed the American League Wild Card game last night, now it’s time to do the same with the National League game. The NL Wild Card features familiar foes, the NL Central rival Chicago Cubs (97-65) and Pittsburgh Pirates (98-64) at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. SP Jake Arrieta (22-6, 1.77 ERA) gets the start for the Cubs while SP Gerrit Cole (19-8, 2.60 ERA) gets the nod for the Pirates.

With the impressive numbers Arrieta and Cole put up this season, you can expect a pitcher’s duel in this one, and offense will likely be at a premium for the teams with the second- and third-best records in the majors this season.

Arrieta had one of the best pitching performances in recent memory, winning 22 games with an ERA well under 2.00. He also struck out 236 batters in 229 innings, making him a leading candidate for the NL Cy Young Award. His numbers since the all-star break are particularly impressive. In 15 starts, he went 12-1, with a 0.75 ERA and 113 strikeouts in 107.1 innings. He also threw two complete game shutouts in the second half, including a no-hitter against the Dodgers on August 30.

Cole had a good season himself, though it looks fairly pedestrian compared to the numbers Arrieta put up. Cole.had 202 strikeouts in 208 innings, going 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA. Unlike Arrieta, Cole regressed a bit in the second half, particularly in September and October, when his ERA was 3.29, the highest of any month this season. At home this season, Cole went 9-3 with a 2.83 ERA.

The Cubs definitely have the advantage at starting pitcher, but the Pirates likely have the edge if the game ends up in the hands of the bullpen. Pittsburgh closer Mark Melancon had 51 saves this season, with a 2.23 ERA and 62 strikeouts in 76.2 innings. The Cubs had several pitchers act as closer during the season, eventually settling on Hector Rondon, who saved 30 games with a 1.67 ERA and 69 strikeouts in 70 innings.

Offensively, the Pirates had a significantly better team batting average than the Cubs (.260 vs .244), but the Cubs have a definite advantage in the power department, hitting the fifth-most home runs in the National League, with 171 — 31 more than the Pirates’ 140. The Cubs, however, strike out a lot — 1,518 times to be exact, the most in the majors this season. As I discussed with the Astros yesterday, if the Cubs hit a dry spell, a good pitcher can get them out. If guys like 3B Kris Bryant and 1B Anthony Rizzo are on their game, though, I think they’ll hit in the game.

When a game is expected to be a pitcher’s duel, like this one is, I think you have to lean toward the team with the better starting pitcher. In this case, that is by far Arrieta. I think he has another strong start in him and will be able to hold down the Pirates offense so I believe the Cubs will win the game and head into the NLDS as they attempt to play in their first World Series since 1945.

The winning team moves on to play the NL Central champion Cardinals in an NLDS on Friday; the NL West champion Dodgers play the NL East champion Mets in the other NLDS, which also begins Friday.

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