Here's how the Pirates who are the most likely to be on the roster for that game have fared against Arrieta in their careers:
But here's what they can do:
1) Outlast him.
Outlast him and they have a chance, much as they did on September 16th. Arrieta went eight innings, gave up six hits and a walk in eight innings. He struck out only five, and the Pirates managed to score two runs while he was in the game (one unearned), and the Pirates went on to lose in 13 frames. Once Arrieta is out of the game, the Cubs turn to a series of hard-throwing, walk-prone relievers who are eminently beatable. The key to beating the Cubs is to get Arrieta out of the game. To do this, the Pirates must look to run up Arrieta's pitch count.
One way to do this is to mandate no first-pitch swings, at least the first time through the order, maybe even the second. The Pirates should not make a single first-pitch out in at least the first five or six innings of this game. Give Arrieta the first-pitch strike if it means making him pitch to you.
Another way to do it is to structure the lineup so that Arrieta has to face the guys who see the most pitches more often than anyone else. No Josh Harrison hitting second, no Aramis Ramirez hitting cleanup.
Here's a list of those same regulars and the average number of pitches they've seen per plate appearance this season (2015 OBP in parentheses):
Andrew McCutchen: 4.04 (.405)
Michael Morse: 4.01 (.419)
Francisco Cervelli: 3.91 (.375)
Gregory Polanco: 3.89 (.320)
Neil Walker: 3.88 (.329)
Pedro Alvarez: 3.87 (3.18)
Jordy Mercer: 3.71 (.295)
Starling Marte: 3.61 (.334)
Sean Rodriguez: 3.64 (.282)
Aramis Ramirez: 3.49 (.298)
Josh Harrison: 3.46 (.322)
Among hitters with at least 500 PAs this season, the average number of pitches seen per PA is 3.82. Cervelli is 3 PAs away from qualifying, and Walker, Marte, McCutchen and Polanco are the only other Pirates with that many appearances. Mash those numbers together and your batting order for the Wild Card game should come out looking something like this:
Notes on this:
- The hard truth of it is that the Pirates don't have a true leadoff hitter and should probably have been hitting Cervelli in that spot for a while now. That he hasn't hit any higher than sixth in the order since Jung Ho Kang went down is inexplicable.
- There is a reasonable case to be made for swapping Polanco and Alvarez. The top four hitters in the order, though, must be static.
- There's an even more reasonable argument for hitting Mercer 7, Cole 8 and Harrison 9.
- In all likelihood, the Pirates are not going to do any of these things.
2) Be judicious with the pitching.
This means three things:
- The only pitchers who should be allowed to appear in this game are: Cole, Happ, Blanton, Soria, Watson and Melancon. That's it; that's the list.
- The Pirates should use one of the last three regular season games as a bullpen game. Give Blanton three innings just to stretch him out, then let Jeff Locke, Vance Worley and Rob Scahill go nuts.
- Happ won't be needed until Game 3 of the Division Series, so he should be up and available for the Wild Card game. The Pirates shouldn't hesitate to pinch hit for Cole early (in the fourth or fifth innings) if the table's set for them to score with Cole's spot in the order coming up. This allows the Pirates to effectively have two long men ready for this game, leave Jared Hughes, Arquimedes Caminero and Antonio Bastardo off the roster and carry extra position players who will be far more valuable should the game go into extra innings.
The Cardinals are hobbling into the postseason. They're still a good team, but they're more beatable now than they've been in the last three years. If the Pirates can get past Arrieta and the Cubs, they have a legitimate shot at knocking off St. Louis, its depleted rotation, terrible bullpen and loathsome fanbase. We'll explore that if an when it becomes necessary.