Wild-card preview? Arrieta set to face off against Pirates

In four starts against the Pirates, Jake Arrieta has a 0.93 ERA and has given up just three earned runs in 29 innings. 

CHICAGO -- If Pittsburgh Pirates ace Gerrit Cole has handcuffed the Chicago Cubs this season, then Cubs ace Jake Arrieta has locked the Pirates up and tossed the key in the Allegheny River.

Arrieta starts Sunday night in the series finale and the final game in a three-game preview of what is likely to be the National League wild-card matchup Oct. 7. Cole, who will be the Pirates’ wild-card starter if the Bucs -- who beat the Cubs 4-0 Saturday -- don’t catch St. Louis for the division title, did his job Friday in a 3-2 win.

Now it’s time for Arrieta to strike fear into the hearts of the Pirates and cement his Cy Young candidacy. Arrieta could overtake favorite Zack Greinke late in the media voting with a nationally televised game on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball.

Don’t be fooled by any team-first humility talk, Arrieta (20-6, 1.88 ERA, 0.90 WHIP) wants the Cy Young. Why wouldn’t he? He certainly deserves it. Few athletes, let alone pitchers, work as hard as he does to prepare his body for competition. He keeps a health-conscious diet, and the cramped press conference room has one of his Pilates machines.

Most importantly, Arrieta is just nasty, with an array of uncomfortable pitches. His four-seam fastball and sinker both average around 94 mph, and they are complemented by an 89 mph slider, an 80 mph curveball and an occasional 87 mph changeup.

In his four September starts, Arrieta has a 0.55 ERA, which is slightly higher than his 0.43 ERA for August. In his past 10 starts, a span of 75 1/3 innings, Arrieta has given up four earned runs. Hitters are batting .167 against him this month.

Arrieta has two starts left in the regular season, but you have to figure he won’t be on any serious restrictions on the big stage Sunday. He won’t throw 123 pitches, like he did in his complete-game shutout win over Milwaukee on Sept. 22, but he probably won’t throw 90, either.

“No reason to change anything now,” he said. “At this point of the season, I’ll take a day or two off throwing during the week. I’ll hone some things and continue to work on flexibility and have a good side session and kind of shut it down at that point. Just be ready for my start day, knowing this is the time of year to save some bullets, be healthy, and that’s where I’m at.”

A little psychological warfare against his likely playoff opponents wouldn’t hurt, either. In four starts against the Pirates, Arrieta has a 0.93 ERA after giving up just three earned runs (four total) in 29 innings. He has allowed 17 hits, including three doubles and zero other extra-base hits, and five walks. He has struck out 24.

“To be the best, you have to beat the best guys out there,” former Cub and current Pirates third baseman Aramis Ramirez said. “For us to achieve our goal, we’re going to have to beat guys like Arrieta. You’re not facing No. 4, No. 5 guys in the postseason.”

Advance scouts will be watching Arrieta carefully, and the Pirates' hitters should be taking mental notes on their slow walks back to the visiting dugout.

“I told [my wife] Brittany last night when we’re laying in bed, I’m probably going to come out Sunday and feature some stuff they’ve never seen before,” Arrieta said, joking. “Just to kind of mix it up. Knuckleball. A little different kind of changeup. I don’t know.”

That’s some serious playoff-race pillow talk.

Although Arrieta probably won't throw the knuckler, he will, as always, switch up his patterns. You don’t get to be this good by being complacent.

“But maybe [I’ll] sequence some things different than I have before in the past,” he said. “It’s a chess match, really. They’ve seen what I throw. They know what I throw. The sequences are things I constantly change and constantly switch up, so it’s hard to find any patterns.”

Like Aramis said, for the Pirates to be the best, they’ll have to get through Arrieta. It should be fun to watch them try.