Cubs victory reveals why Wild Card game needs to be in Chicago

With the Cubs seven games behind the Cardinals with 17 games left to play, winning the National League Central seems like a very remote proposition. Sweeping the Cards at Wrigley this weekend will make it seem more possible than it is now, and I hope that’s what comes to pass. But for now, I’m willing to suggest it’s a very long shot.

Catching the Pirates to bring the National League wildcard game to Chicago seemed like a remote possibility on Tuesday afternoon, as well. But taking the nightcap of Tuesday’s doubleheader, and then squeaking out a win in extra innings on Wednesday, has made it seem possible again.

The Cubs are just three games behind the Pirates, and still have four games against them this season. It’s possible that the led can be sliced to just two games, with a win on Thursday afternoon. And who doesn’t love baseball in the afternoon, especially during the week?

I had heard from at least one Cubs fan on Twitter this week who labelled overtaking the Pirates as unrealistic. He appeared to have resigned himself to a Wild Card tilt in PNC on October 7, with Jake Arrieta taking the mound to keep the season alive.

Leaving aside the fact that he seems to have internalized my call for Jake to make the wild card start–which was made before he threw the no-hitter at Los Angeles–the feeling I got from engaging him in a brief debate on Twitter was that Arrieta’s run of brilliance in August and September was the equalizer that the Cubs needed to carry the day.

I disagreed with this Arrieta-as-invincible-savior narrative, in part because Rick Sutcliffe seemed invincible back in 1984, and that didn’t end so well. Mark Prior and Kerry Wood seemed equally invincible in 2003, and look how that turned out. Madison Bumgarner seemed invincible last October, but he doesn’t wear a Cubs uniform, either. It’s a trap to believe that any pitcher could ever be invincible.

As Wednesday night’s game went to extra innings, I got increasingly antsy as the game went on. It even started in the ninth inning itself, when Aramis Ramirez came to the plate with a runner on first and one out. Starlin Castro’s brilliant stop up the middle–and the double play that followed–was exhilarating, without a doubt. But had the ball got through to the outfield, there would have been runners on the corners and one out.

In that situation, the next step would be either intentionally walking the next hitter to load the bases, or at the very least trying to pitch around him by giving him nothing good to hit. And all the while, the fear of a wild pitch–which does happen on occasion–would have been a very real concern. Thank goodness it never came to that.

I think of Wednesday night’s game as a dry run for the Wild Card game at PNC Park. Arrieta pitched very well, but he got no run support and left the game without securing his 20th win. He’ll still have at least two more shots at it as the season wins down, and I have no doubt he’ll get it.

But what I have great doubts about is the ability to pull out a win in an extra-inning game on the road. It’s ironic to say that, when the Cubs did exactly that on Wednesday night. But certain baseball realities ar going to exist, wherever the Cubs and Pirates end up in the standings.

Being the home team in baseball is a profound advantage to have. The cheering crowd is one thing, and I have no doubt we’d see an ocean of yellow and black in PNC Park on October 7. This was the team that lost to the Giants at home in last year’s play-in game, and nobody–players and fans alike–wants to repeat that result this year.

But even more important, being the home team allows the offense to know what it needs to do when they come p to bat. If the Cubs score a run in the top of an inning, the Pirates would know they need to score one to tie, and two to win. If the Cubs don’t score, the Pirates know they only need one run to win. It keeps the defense back on their heels, that’s for sure.

And every pitch thrown, and every swing of the bat, can result in the type of walk-off win that we see on the highlight shows every night. Walk-off wins are very exciting, but only the home team gets to have them. The visitors might scratch out a run in their half of the inning, but then they have to hope they can hang on in the bottom half of the inning to secure the win.

When I was a kid, my family would play a lot of bocce in the back yard. And whoever went last in any round was always thought to have “the hammer.” Whatever the first few throws in any round were like, he who went last had the advantage of the final toss. And the home team always has a similar hammer in a baseball game. Arrieta or no Arrieta, that’s a hammer the Cubs need to have in a one-game elimination scenario.

Let’s hope a win on Thursday not only helps to narrow the gap with the Pirates, but also builds up some momentum with the Cardinals coming to town on Friday. What a series that’s going to be.