NL Wild Card Preview: Cubs Keys to Victory
Alas, the time has come. After six years of heartbreak and disappointment, the mighty Chicago Cubs are back in the postseason, and this time, let’s hope there’s no Steve Bartman to ruin the spoils. With Sunday’s 3-1 victory and a three-game sweep of the reeling Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park, the Cubbies successfully finished off a 97-65 season (their best since ’08) with an eight-game win streak in which the North-siders outscored their opponents 34-9. Though the .599 win percentage would give them the outright one seed in the American League playoffs, the record stood at third place in the NL Central alone (behind St. Louis and Pittsburgh), and will force the Cubs into a one-game wild card on Wednesday evening against the Bucs in the Steel City.
All year, this squad has relied on the talent of their youngsters and it has paid off. However, they now are going to have to look to their veterans to help polish off the Pirates and advance to the NLDS for the first time since ’08. The power of Anthony Rizzo, the rejuvenation of Starlin Castro, and, without a doubt, the menace of Jake Arrieta will be of the utmost importance for the Cubs as they take their major-league leading 48-33 road record to the rubber at PNC Park in a win or go home scenario.
Projected Starting Line-Up/Batting Order:
Dexter Fowler (CF) (2015 Stats: .250 BA, 17 HR, 46 RBI)
Kyle Schwarber (LF) (2015 Stats: .246 BA, 16 HR, 43 RBI)
Kris Bryant (3B) (2015 Stats: .275 BA, 26 HR, 99 RBI)
Anthony Rizzo (1B) (2015 Stats: .278 BA, 31 HR, 101 RBI)
Starlin Castro (2B) (2015 Stats: .265 BA, 11 HR, 69 RBI)
Chris Coghlan (RF) (2015 Stats: .250 BA, 16 HR, 41 RBI)
Miguel Montero (C) (2015 Stats: .248 BA, 15 HR, 53 RBI)
Jake Arrieta (P) (2015 Stats: 22-7, 1.77 ERA, 236 SO)
Addison Russell (SS) (2015 Stats: .242 BA, 13 HR, 54 RBI)
Keys to Victory:
- Get on the board early
From Arrieta’s perspective, it would be nice to come out in the bottom of the first inning and pitch with some padding. A couple of hard-hit balls off of Gerrit Cole in the top of the inning could go a long way for the Cubs in this game. Easier said than done, probably, but the top of the Cubs lineup definitely has the pedigree to do so. Also, of the top four in the projected batting order, none of them have a BA lower than .200 against Cole, with Rizzo’s getting as high as .353. Building a lead early is important, because coming back late against a closer like Mark Melancon (who lead the majors with 51 saves this season) could be a struggle.
- Arrieta’s pitches per inning
- Defense does indeed win championships in baseball, and the Cubs have some shining stars on the defensive side of the ball this season. From the rookie Addison Russell’s circus plays at short, to Anthony Rizzo’s catches from atop the tarp down the first base line, the defense has been superb for this team. The defense will play an important factor in helping get Arrieta get out of innings quickly so that he can go as far into this game as possible… that is, should the Pirates even get a hit off of him.
- Limit strikeouts
The Cubs finished the 2015 season at first place in the MLB in strikeouts by nearly 200 K’s. More importantly, the Pittsburgh pitching staff tallied the NL’s fifth most strikeouts over the course of the season. Kris Bryant alone had the second most strikeouts in the majors with 199, and in order for the Cubs to win this game, those mistakes will need to be alleviated.
- Give padding to Strop and Rondon
Should the Cubs be in a hold/save situation on Wednesday night and Arrieta’s pitch count quickly rises, the tides will turn to Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon, who have had their fair share of struggles this season. Rondon finished the season with 30 saves and 4 blown saves, but he bailed himself out a few times also—namely on August 10th vs. San Francisco, after he loaded the bases before striking out the side to give the Cubs a 2-0 win. Strop, much like Rondon, has had to do his fair share of hard work, but he has had a much better second half of the season. Strop finished the year with 28 holds, but 2 blown saves in five chances. Though not as drastic as Carlos Marmol’s stats from recent years, both Strop and Rondon have had troubles with their control this year.
- Believe in magic
They’re the Cubs. Nothing is supposed to go their way. Everyone knows they haven’t won a World Series since 1908, but could this finally be the year? After a second-half with a win percentage of .750 (50-25), the North siders actually have a chance to make an impact in the playoffs, but it all starts with one game. Joe Maddon brought a magician into the clubhouse during the middle of the season when the Cubs were in the midst of a rough stretch, but from there on out, it seems as if they have been pulling the rabbit out of the hat left and right. Let’s see how it all lays down on Wednseday evening… it should be a doozy.