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them's the breaks

The Happy, Scary Cubs and the Rough Justice of the Wild Card

There's nothing fair about a system that makes the second- and third-best teams in baseball play a one-game playoff, but the injustice makes it that much more fun.

by Robert O'Connell
Oct 8 2015, 11:40pm

Photo by Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Had baseball's postseason not expanded three years ago to include two Wild Card teams from each league, this year's National League Central would have made a strong argument for just such a change. The best team in baseball, by record, won it; the second- and third-winningest teams in baseball, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs, finished in the next two spots. A half-decade ago, the Cubs would have received nothing more than a better luck next time for their 97 wins. This year, they got a one-game playoff against a team that won 98.

This arrangement is not justice, exactly—not when five teams with worse records spent Wednesday night icing their bruises and arranging their rotations for their division series—but it is a palatable enough approximation this season. Anyway, fairness is always and forever far behind spectacle where objectives are concerned. The NL Wild Card game, wherein a fluke of geography forced two of the game's best teams to do the risky and urgent work of long shots, to appeal to every corner of their rosters and exhaust their emotional reserves, delivered on spectacle to such a degree that the flaws in the mechanism could be happily ignored for a few hours.

Read More: The New York Mets, And The Last Meaningless Game

The day after, the 4-0 Cubs win may not look all that dramatic. The story of the game scans simply enough. Jake Arrieta, Chicago's surprise ace, tossed a complete-game shutout, and Gerrit Cole, Pittsburgh's hard-throwing No. 1, left his pedigreed fastball lying around in the middle of the strike zone more than he should have. The difference in quality between the two pitchers received honest representation in the scoreline. A single game does not allow the diligence of a five- or seven-game series, but, at least in this case, it seemed to reflect something more decent than chance.

The game was less tidy than the numbers alone suggest. Things came to a head in the seventh, when Arrieta, who had hit two Pirates, took a fastball to the belt from reliever Tony Watson. Benches cleared, but nothing changed. The whole evening to that point had been characterized by a droning desperation owing to the contrived but irrefutable stakes, and it made itself known in successes and failures alike.

It was in Dexter Fowler's celebratory clap from the basepath before the third-inning homer by luxuriantly rectangular slugger Kyle Schwarber had even left the yard, and in the grim responsibility of Andrew McCutchen's at-bats as he worked Arrieta deep into counts and sent difficult pitches barreling back up the middle. It was in Arrieta himself, with the steep eyebrows, sunken cheeks, and cold gaze of a seafarer, and in his hard slider, which moved as if to gut a fish. It was in Cole, too, who after giving up his second homer of the night, to Fowler, looked like he'd just gotten the saddest news of his life.

A big hit for a great big boy. — Photo by Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It is tempting to credit Chicago's youthful ease with the win or blame Pittsburgh's historical burdens for the loss, which is their second straight Wild Card shutout defeat. That coat of after-the-fact narrative justice doesn't stick here. Of course, the Pirates would have looked just as happy as the Cubs if Cole's luck had been better, or Arrieta's had been worse, or if a sixth-inning rally had not fizzled into a double play that began with a ball that left Starling Marte's bat at 109 miles per hour. Sweeping judgments of collective character are not the project of the single-elimination round. It is designed to give its participants a stress-addled penalty, and to give the rest of us a show. It did.

This show sends its winners on to the later rounds with a triumphant narrative in tow. It teaches us where to place them in the taxonomy of baseball's styles, and it lets us know that their has already worked under drastic conditions at least once. The Kansas City Royals, a year ago, turned a freewheeling Wild Card comeback into a whole October of swiped bags and line drives. The Cubs, in their Wild Card victory, let everyone know the fashion in which they will win, if they're going to.

They are a team of cobbled but compatible talent. Schwarber, his fellow prodigious rookie Kris Bryant, and the virtuosic Anthony Rizzo occupy the heart of the order in a daunting left-right-left arrangement. Jon Lester, ready in case of emergency last night, joins Arrieta in leading the rotation; his cutter breaks the opposite direction of Arrieta's slider but achieves similar mean ends. Joe Maddon watches everything from the top step as if it is not live action but a Championship DVD replay, cool and confident that his maneuvers will pan out; they did last night, when Maddon moved Bryant from left to third, where he subsequently gloved two sharp liners.

So, having added an elimination-game coup to their 97 regular season wins, the Cubs now have a sheen that only a win like that one can grant. The next few weeks will tell us if it means anything at all. In the meantime, it's a fittingly fleeting honor for having passed such a cruel, silly, and captivating trial.

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