Small ball may be the key in National League wild card game

PITTSBURGH -- It’s best to assume a close, low scoring affair when Jake Arrieta and Gerrit Cole face off in the National League wild card game on Wednesday night. Of course this is baseball so that’s not necessarily going to be the case.

“Well, it very well could be,” Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said half-sarcastically on Tuesday afternoon. “You take the numbers and you watch the way they both have pitched, would make all the sense in the world. I encourage you to write your storyline right now then.”

Hurdle went on to remind everyone the “beauty” of the game is in its mystery. We have no idea what will happen so it’s a good idea to examine a few things which could affect a close game but aren’t discussed much. Here are a few storylines which are flying under the radar heading into Wednesday’s showdown.

Stolen bases: The Pirates rank first in baseball in stolen bases given up while the Chicago Cubs rank second. Both starting catchers have had their issues. Francisco Cervelli has thrown out just 22 percent of runners (29-of-130) while Miguel Montero is slightly worse at about 20 percent (18-of-89). It’s not all on the catchers though. Arrieta has been on the mound for 27 stolen bases, good for fourth most in the National League while Cole ranks right behind him with 25. That’s a little skewed as the pitchers rank second and seventh in innings pitched meaning they were on the mound more often than most in the league. Still, they aren’t great at holding runners on and their catchers have problems throwing guys out. In a tight game a stolen base could make the difference.

Advantage: Even

Bunting: The Cubs don’t do it very often while it’s part of the Pirates game. Pittsburgh ranked third in the NL with 63 sacrifice bunts while the Cubs had nearly half (32) placing them second to last. The Cubs were working on squeeze plays over the weekend but haven’t played much small ball this season. If they’re getting hits it won’t matter, but like the stolen bases a successful bunt at an opportune time could make the difference in the game.

Advantage: Pirates

Situational hitting: The Cubs have been notoriously bad at getting runners home from third with less than two outs. They were successful just 40 percent of the time in the regular season -- striking out too often. The Pirates got runners home 52 percent of the time which is just above league average. This could be a key unless the numbers reverse themselves in the playoffs. Sometimes “clutch” statistics tend to go the other way making for a surprise hero or two. But the Cubs will have to prove they can do it late in a tight game before we can declare it’s not a problem anymore.

Advantage: Pirates

Opponent OPS: This is less under the radar but not talked about enough as the Cubs pitching staff is the best in baseball in opponent’s OPS with a .662 mark. The Pirates are third at .672 but with Arrieta on the mound the Cubs have a distinct advantage. He tied for the league lead with a .507 mark while Cole ranks eighth at .623. The Pirates' bullpen ranked first while the Cubs were third. The point is the Pirates will really have to earn their runs against Arrieta as he simply gives up very little in terms of base runners – and the guys coming in behind him don’t as well. Maybe this mitigates the Pirates small ball advantage. They actually have to get a runner to third in order to bring him in.

Advantage: Cubs