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Pirates on quite a ride entering familiar wild-card game spot

AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

PITTSBURGH -- A red sheet of paper was on every chair in the Pirates' clubhouse Tuesday. It laid out the itinerary for the National League Divisional Series trip to St. Louis.

Buses leave from PNC Park at 10:45 a.m. Thursday, no team bus from the hotel in St. Louis to the park, that kind of thing. But the Pirates aren't there yet. Once again, they have to earn the right to play in the divisional series. Nothing comes easy in Pittsburgh.

For the Pirates, that sheet of paper is a bright reminder of what they’re playing for in Wednesday’s wild-card game. It’s the third straight season the Pirates have had to play this do-or-die game. It’s a slight that would seem like incredible fortune just four years ago, given the team’s previous 20-year playoff drought. The franchise had losing seasons every year from 1993 through 2012.

Now it’s a thriving franchise with attendance just under 2.5 million combined this past season in one of the sport’s smallest markets.

“Going from a fan to a part of the minor league system to a part of the big league system,” said Pirates second baseman Neil Walker, a Pittsburgh native. “Not having success and then having success, it makes you appreciate, No. 1, how difficult this game is individually and as a team, and how you can’t take anything for granted in this game.”

But this team is their best team since 1991, when they also won 98 games. That win total was the second-most in the majors this season. Unfortunately the Cardinals won 100. The upstart Cubs (97-65), making their first postseason since 2008, nearly stole the home field for this game by ending the season on an eight-game win streak.

“It comes down to the last game, it seems like, every year,” said Wednesday’s starter Gerrit Cole, who actually made his major league debut in 2013. “We never find a way to take the simpler road to the postseason. But it's done, and now we can move on.”

The Pirates are 1-1 in these games. In 2013, the PNC Park crowd helped unnerve Cincinnati starter Johnny Cueto, and the Pirates took St. Louis to five games in the NLDS. Last season, Giants ace Madison Bumgarner pitched a shutout while Edinson Volquez struggled. Last year, Cole pitched at the end of the season to try to win the National League Central.

“It’s fun to be a part of this group, this core group,” Walker said. “The ups and downs we’ve had over the last three years have helped us grow as individuals but more as a team. This is the time of year when it’s fun because you get the opportunity to reap the rewards of all the work you’ve put in all year.”

Unfortunately for the Pirates, they’re facing the pitching version of the Grim Reaper, Cubs ace Jake Arrieta, one of the three favorites for the NL Cy Young award.

“They have the best pitcher in the world going right now,” Pirates third baseman Aramis Ramirez said.

That’s no exaggeration. From August until the end of the season, Arrieta has given up only four earned runs in 88 1/3 innings. He’s a main part of the reason the Cubs were 50-25 in the second half.

Just as important, Arrieta has a 0.75 ERA in five starts against the Pirates this season, allowing three extra-base hits, all doubles. In three starts this year at PNC Park, Arrieta is 2-0 with a 0.82 ERA. His only miscue was an errant throw that gave Pittsburgh a run in what turned out to be a 12-inning, 3-2 win for the Cubs on Sept. 17.

Of the eight Pirates who have logged more than 10 at-bats against Arrieta, only Starling Marte (.235) and Andrew McCutchen (.348) have batting averages of at least .200.

“Well, the guy’s got a four-pitch arsenal that’s as good as any in the league,” Walker said. “So, you try to assess how he’s going to be his first time through the order. Is he using his fastball more? Is he trying to get ahead with breaking balls? Is he around the zone? Is he up in the zone? Does it seem like the atmosphere is getting to him a little bit? But we know what his strong points are, and as hitters we have to do a good job of pinpointing those, and when he makes a mistake, you have to not miss it.”

Arrieta relies heavily on his sinking fastball and his slider-cutter hybrid. But he changes patterns every game. There’s a reason no one can hit him right now.

“That’s one thing that makes him good, he doesn’t have a ton of patterns,” Walker said. “But you do know his best pitch is that slider-cutter, so knowing that you kind of work off of that. There’s some things I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”

Cole (19-8, 2.60 ERA, 1.09 WHIP) has killed the Cubs as well. In four starts against them, he has a 2.13 ERA (six earned runs, eight total, in 25 1/3 innings). He has struck out 32, given up just one extra-base hit and walked four. He beat the Cubs 3-2 on Sept. 25 at Wrigley Field when he gave up one run on four hits and two walks in seven innings. He struck out eight. Cole threw 84 four-seam fastballs that game. They averaged 97.6 mph. He also got an RBI single off Jon Lester.

Cole said he likes the challenge.

“You know, I feel like when you're in these situations you want to face the best,” Cole said. “You want to get the best measure and best temperature of the other team because you really want to earn these wins. You work so hard to put yourself in position to have these opportunities, and it doesn't feel any better than going up against the best.

“On the flip side, I think you can sit here and say he's probably going to go pretty deep and he's probably going to go pretty low. So you're probably going to have to go pretty deep and you're probably going to have to go pretty low too. So you know what you're going to get.”

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle didn't release his lineup Tuesday, nor did Cubs manager Joe Maddon. Hurdle is a veteran of these situations, so he knows that for all the planning and advance scouting, you can't predict what will happen Wednesday when the lights go on.

"What it comes down to is the beauty of the game and what can take place once men get on the mound and teams take the field," Hurdle said.