Jake Arrieta’s reflexive answer to the wild-card question – ‘Who gives a s---?’ – will either be remembered as the symbolic moment where a Cy Young Award winner got locked back into the zone. Or those four words will go on the headstone of the 2016 Cubs if they don’t win the World Series.
Because if Madison Bumgarner puts the San Francisco Giants on his shoulders and beats New York Mets ace Noah Syndergaard on Wednesday night at Citi Field, then remember how Cubs manager Joe Maddon framed any National League first-round opponent: “Be careful what you wish for.”
Especially in a best-of-five series where the Giants can line up Johnny Cueto to start Games 1 and 5 at Wrigley Field, with one-time All-Star lefty Matt Moore, World Series MVP Bumgarner and motivated ex-Cub Jeff Samardzija in between, making this a simple question: Which team is more dangerous?
“It’s the Giants,” an NL Central scout said, “because if their starting pitching gets hot, then they can do some damage. But the only problem is, they need their bullpen to shore things up a little better at the end of the game.
“They have pedigree. They have experience. They have starting pitching. It’s just a matter of the back end (of the bullpen) when they’re winning: Can they hold it together?”
The Giants certainly have their flaws, leading the majors with 30 blown saves, sinking to 30-42 in the second half after having the best record in the game at the All-Star break (57-33). But San Francisco could once again be clicking at the right time, sweeping the Los Angeles Dodgers over the weekend at AT&T Park to avoid a road Game 163 against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Elite rotation pieces and a defense that tied for the major-league lead in fielding percentage (.988) can help mask some of those bullpen issues. Offensively, the Giants can make up for a power outage – Brandon Belt led the team with 17 home runs – with a lineup that doesn’t give away at-bats and features battle-tested hitters like Buster Posey, Hunter Pence and Brandon Crawford.
“You’ve got an experienced, mature bunch that will figure out a way to beat you,” an NL East scout said. “It’s an even-number year. That’s what (would scare) me. Look at what they did two years ago. They were in the cellar then, and look what they did.”
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The 2010 Giants didn’t clinch an NL West title until Game 162 and won the World Series. The 2012 Giants won elimination games against the Cincinnati Reds and Cardinals before sweeping the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. The 2014 Giants watched Bumgarner throw a complete-game shutout in a wild-card showdown against the Pittsburgh Pirates and come out of the bullpen for a five-inning save to beat the Kansas City Royals in a World Series Game 7.
“This is 2016, so they’re going to be tough to beat, no doubt,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “Same with the Mets and the experience they gained last year. That will be a fun game to watch, especially with Syndergaard and Bumgarner. I’m sure they’re both going to throw 200 pitches each if they have to.
“It’s fun for baseball – those wild-card games – and we’re happy we’re not partaking in that this year with that anxiety and the stress level.”
Where the Mets have lost three frontline pitchers who shut down the Cubs during last year’s NL Championship Series – Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz are all recovering from season-ending surgeries – the Giants invested $220 million in Cueto (18-5, 2.79 ERA) and Samardzija (12-11, 3.81 ERA) and gave up the kind of young position player (Matt Duffy) the Cubs refused to surrender to the Tampa Bay Rays in a trade-deadline deal for Moore (13-12, 4.08 ERA).
After burning Syndergaard in the wild-card game, the Mets could be leaning on a 43-year-old control artist (Bartolo Colon) and two rookies (Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman) who didn’t arrive in New York with any hype.
“The Mets – I don’t know – they got some mojo,” an NL West scout said. “When you got a guy like (Yoenis) Cespedes, he can turn (everything) around (in that lineup). Bartolo’s pretty good, but I’m shocked that they’ve put this run together.”
The Giants and Mets are 87-win teams that didn’t flip off the switch. The Cubs held a double-digit lead in the NL Central since the first week of August, clinched a division title in mid-September and spent the final week of the regular season playing non-contenders. One reward for 103 wins will be a four-day layoff.
“Listen, we’re going to play a good team in the first round,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “By definition, you’re going to play a team that gets on a plane feeling awesome about themselves after Wednesday’s win.
“We were that team last year. You get on that plane, you feel like world-beaters after winning that (wild-card) game on the road. We’re going to play a good team that feels good about themselves. That’s why I think the focus has to be on us and why we need to play good baseball.”
Arrieta gave his teammates that invincible feeling, suffocating the Pirates and setting off the champagne-soaked celebration inside PNC Park’s visiting clubhouse, the Cubs flying to St. Louis and then knocking out a 100-win Cardinals team.
“We can go toe-to-toe in the playoffs with any lineup or any rotation,” Arrieta said. “We’re more than equipped and more than capable of taking care of business and moving forward. But you got to start with the first game October 7.”