Jake Arrieta of the Cubs is the only 20-game winner in baseball, but he may have a tough assignment vs. the red-hot Pirates, who are still hopeful of catching St. Louis.
The only 20-game winner in the Major Leagues is on the mound on Sunday Night Baseball this week, but his red-hot opponents have all the incentive when A.J. Burnett and the Pittsburgh Pirates (95-60, 45-35 away) pay a visit to the 20-6 fellow right-hander Jake Arrieta and the Chicago Cubs (89-65, 47-32 home) in the final game of a three-game series from Wrigley Field in Chicago, IL at 8:05 ET in a game televised nationally on ESPN.
The posted money line at Pinnacle Sports has Pittsburgh as a big road underdog for this contest at current odds of +173.
Three NL Central Teams in Playoffs
For the second time in three years, there will be three National League Central teams in the playoffs as the second place Pirates actually have the second best record in all of baseball after winning the first two games of this series and the Cubs are tied for the third best record in baseball and do have the third best record in the National League. Yet, Pittsburgh trails the team with baseball’s best record, the St. Louis Cardinals, by three games and the Cubs are 8½ back.
Thus the Pirates are in the playoffs for the third straight year, and as of right now it would be as a wild card for the third straight time. Pittsburgh split the previous two Wild Card Playoff Game appearances, beating the Cincinnati Reds in 2013 before being the losing MLB Pick to Madison Bumgarner and the eventual World Champion San Francisco Giants last year. The Cubs meanwhile have ended six years of suffering, making the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Pirates Can Still Win Division
However, the Pirates are not ready to concede that they will be a wild card for the third straight year as they have been the hottest team in baseball winning their last eight straight games and going 35-17 in their last 52 contests. With the gap behind the Cardinals now at three games, the Bucs do have a realistic chance of catching St. Louis with this being their last road game of the year, meaning the last six games are at PNC Park where Pittsburgh is 50-25.
Pittsburgh now turns to Burnett as it tries to get closer to St. Louis. Burnett missed six weeks of the season with an elbow injury, but he has pitched well while seeming unaffected by the injury in this three starts since returning.
The veteran Burnett announced early this year that this will be his last Major League season as he was retiring at year’s end. It would be nice for Burnett’s swan song to end with a World Series title, but let us not get ahead of ourselves. A.J. has yet to go six innings since coming back, although he seems ready to go that far now going five, 5.1 and 5.2 innings in that order while allowing three earned runs in his September 10th return and two earned the last two starts.
One of those starts came vs. these Cubs back in Pittsburgh on September 16th, where he allowed two runs in 5.1 innings with an impressive seven strikeouts vs. one walk. In fact, Burnett’s 15 strikeouts in 16 innings over the three comeback starts are an indication that the elbow is fine. And remember that Burnett has now allowed three runs or less in his last four starts vs. the Cubs including all three outings vs. Chicago this year.
Cubs Basically Locked In
Now, there are not enough superlatives for the way that Arrieta is pitching right now as he just may have surpassed Zack Greinke of the Dodgers as the favorite to win the National League Cy Young Award. Besides being 20-6, Jake has a miniscule 1.88 ERA and 0.90 WHIP to go along with 220 strikeouts in 216 innings vs. 48 walks and only 10 home runs allowed.
Moreover, Arrieta has allowed a grand total of two earned runs in his last seven starts with five scoreless outings including a no-hitter. One of the earned runs he allowed did come vs. these Pirates in a no-decision two starts back where he actually allowed two runs (one unearned) in eight innings of a game the Cubs went on to win 3-2 in 10 innings.
Still, while we are not disputing Arrieta’s greatness, it is still it does appear that the Cubs are locked in to the second wild card spot. Yes, we understand that is not a mathematic fact yet as Chicago trails the Pirates by 5½ games with eight games left, but the odds seem enormous on catching Pittsburgh, especially the way the Pirates are playing, so it is a virtual certainty that the Cubs will be on the road for the Wild Card Game.
Thus this final week of the regular season is meaningless for Chicago, so the Cubs will in all likelihood rest some players and monitor the innings of the starters. That could be most important in the case of Arrieta, as his 216 innings this year are a professional high for him and he is expected to start the Wild Card Game on Wednesday, October 7th. Thus he may not work as deeply here as he normally would.
Pittsburgh Road Warriors
Finally, while the Pirates are one of the best home teams in baseball, they have not minded travelling lately either during their hot run as they are 19-7 in their last 26 road games. Pittsburgh is also 9-4 in the last 13 head-to-head meetings here at Wrigley Field after winning the first two games of the series.
Yes, we get that Arrieta is a stud, but this simply looks like too good a price for a scorching hot team still trying to win its division vs. a team with virtually nothing to play for, so we recommend backing Pittsburgh at a big underdog price in Chicago on Sunday.
MLB Pick: Pirates +173