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Cubs vs. Pirates: National League Wild Card Game preview

The teams with MLB's second- and third-best records face off in a one-game playoff. Fair? Maybe, maybe not. Exciting? It sure ought to be.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

National League Wild Card Game

Pittsburgh Pirates vs. Chicago Cubs

Wednesday, October 7, 2015 @ 8:08 ET

PNC Park, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania



The Pittsburgh Pirates finished 98-64, giving them the second-best record in MLB. The Chicago Cubs finished 97-65, giving them the third-best record in MLB. Teams with those record would make for an impressive-looking World Series matchup (in fact, the last time both World Series participants won 97+ games was way back in 2004), but instead these two are playing in the Wild Card Game, where one loss means your season is over. There's a reasonable argument that the system isn't fair, but the if these teams wanted a different fate, they should have found a way to keep St. Louis from winning another NL Central crown.

The story of this game, at least on paper, is the tremendous starting pitching matchup. Pittsburgh's Gerrit Cole went 19-8 this year, with 202 strikeouts, a 2.60 ERA, and a 2.66 FIP. In a lot of seasons, he's be the leading candidate to win his league's Cy Young Award. Instead, Cole feels like almost an afterthought in this game, because his counterpart in a Chicago uniform is Jake Arrieta, who likely will actually win the Cy Young, having gone 22-6 with 236 strikeouts, a 1.77 ERA, and a 2.35 FIP. While his full-season numbers are plenty impressive, they pale next to his ridiculous second-half, in which he posted a 0.75 ERA in 15 starts, finishing the regular season with eight consecutive appearances of 6+ innings and no more than one run allowed.

The two teams' offenses were very similar this season, in terms of runs (697 for Pittsburgh, 689 for Chicago), in terms of on-base percentage (.323 for Pittsburgh, .321 for Chicago), and in terms of slugging (.398 for Chicago, .396 for Pittsburgh), but functioned pretty differently, with the Cubs posted a ton of strikeouts but also a ton of walks, while the Pirates were closer to the middle of the pack. The Pirates had more hits, but the Cubs had more extra-base hits. Those trends all hold up if you look only at lefty/righty splits as well.

Andrew McCutchen (whose mother will sing the national anthem before the game) is the star of Pittsburgh's offense, while Anthony Rizzo and almost-certain-to-be-NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant are the leaders for Chicago.

Each team also has a good bullpen, so in the event that both starters falter, or the game goes to extra-innings, there won't be an obvious advantage for either side.

There's not much in the way of LGFT action tonight, so Tribe fans will have to find other reasons to choose a side. Pittsburgh is seen by many as a rival city to Cleveland, but as far as I can see, that's just about the Browns and Steelers, and I tend not to let football determine my baseball. I view the Pirates as sort of a National League version of the Indians, and find them pretty easy to root for. The Cubs, on the other hand, or viewed as the ultimate underdog, due to their not having won the World Series since 1908. You might have a soft spot for that storyline... or you might not like the idea of the only team that's gone longer than the Indians without winning it all winning it all.

Today's Lineups

Dexter Fowler - CF Gregory Polanco - RF
Kyle Schwarber - RF Josh Harrison - 3B
Kris Bryant - LF Andrew McCutchen - CF
Anthony Rizzo - 1B Starling Marte - LF
Tommy La Stella - 3B Francisco Cervelli - C
Starlin Castro - 2B Neil Walker - 2B
Miguel Montero - C Jordy Mercer - SS
Addison Russell - SS Sean Rodriguez - 1B
Jake Arrieta - RHP Gerrit Cole - RHP