Eight years ago, Clint Hurdle managed the Colorado Rockies into a one-game playoff with the San Diego Padres. On the mound for the visitors at Coors Field: Right-hander Jake Peavy, who went on to win the National League Cy Young for the 2007 season.
The Rockies tagged Peavy, who entered the game with a 2.36 ERA, for six runs in 6 1/3 innings. Some of the success came from star power — Todd Helton homered, while Matt Holliday delivered an RBI single. But catcher Yorvit Torrealba homered, and Seth Smith’s triple followed by Kaz Matsui's sacrifice fly plated Colorado's sixth run off Peavy before the seventh inning stretch.
The takeaway for Hurdle, who enters Wednesday’s wild card game against Cubs ace Jake Arrieta in his fifth year managing the Pittsburgh Pirates, is that anyone is beatable in one game, no matter how favorable/unfavorable the matchup looks.
“These games, we always talk about, to beat No. 1s, you gotta move runners from second with no outs, you gotta try to score from third with less than two outs,” Hurdle said from the cramped manager’s office at Wrigley Field last week. “And every once in a while, you get a couple guys on, a guy could boot a ball, you get a walk, a guy hits a three-run homer that changes the whole complexion of the game. One missed location by an elite pitcher and one guy putting a big swing on it, it might not even be the guy you had walking in the door thinking it was going to happen that way.
“It happened that way in Colorado. That night we got some things done from some people that probably going into the game you weren’t looking to. … It’s why you (the media) write the stories after the games. More often than not, things happen that you might not have been able to come up with.”
Of course, it works both ways. Last year, San Francisco Giants ace Madison Bumgarner rolled into PNC Park and fired a four-hit shutout to kick-start one of the most impressive postseason performances in baseball history. And the year before, then-Cincinnati Reds right-hander Johnny Cueto lasted 3 1/3 ineffective innings as the Pirates rolled to win their first playoff game since Barry Bonds left town in 1992.
The Cubs altered their rotation in September to line Arrieta up to pitch in Wednesday’s winner-take-all wild card game at PNC Park. It’ll be Arrieta’s sixth start against the Pirates, and in his previous five he’s limited a team with 98 wins to a .151 batting average and .368 OPS without giving up a home run. Essentially, Arrieta’s turned the Pirates into a worse version of himself at the plate — the Cubs ace hit .152 with a .428 OPS and two home runs this year.
“He’s the whole package,” Pirates third baseman Aramis Ramirez said. “He’s got good stuff, good cutter, good curve, plus fastball, 95, 96 (mph) and he commands it. That’s the key. He doesn’t throw the ball over the middle. He’s in and out, he hits the corners and that’s why he is where he is right now.”
All-Star Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen compared the 29-year-old Arrieta’s ability to locate his powerful arsenal to that of Dodgers pitchers Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, who form two-thirds of the NL Cy Young race with Arrieta. Second baseman Neil Walker pointed to Arrieta's improved cutter/slider combo pitch as a reason for his dominant success.
“We’ve seen him several times this year and last year and with any really good pitcher, that’s the key is if he’s making mistakes that day, you gotta take advantage of it,” Walker said. “He’s no different than any other ace pitcher.”
If Pittsburgh has something working in its favor, it’s that nothing Arrieta does Wednesday night will be a surprise. In hitting against him over five games, they’ve seen his arm angle and release point, and know the action on his pitches well.
“We’ve faced him more than once, so regardless of tonight, it’s an advantage because we’ve faced him so much,” McCutchen said a few hours before Arrieta tossed seven innings of one-hit shutout ball against the Pirates Sept. 27. “It can be more of an advantage as opposed to a team outside our division so, yeah, that helps.”
Arrieta allowed four earned runs in his final 12 starts of the season, good for a 0.41 ERA over 88 1/3 innings. His record improved from 11-6 to 22-6.
Three of those starts came against the Pirates (22 IP, 2 R, 1 ER, 4 BB, 19 K), so seeing him a few times in two months didn’t exactly help in terms of results. But Pittsburgh knows what it has to do to beat Arrieta -- jump on mistakes, move runners over and strike when given an opportunity. The challenge is executing that plan.
“If he spots, dots up, throws that cutter-fastball and all that other stuff that he’s been doing for months of the season, it’s a hard night," Hurdle said. "It’s a hard night at the office.
“There’s also some losses tied to his record, though,” Hurdle added with a grin. “There’s going to be an opportunity.”