PITTSBURGH -- The Cubs' first step toward their ultimate goal of ending a 107-year World Series championship drought was contentious, yet also decisive.
Jake Arrieta weaved his routine spell, and rookie Kyle Schwarber drove in the first three runs -- two on a majestic 450-foot homer out of PNC Park -- and Chicago blanked Pittsburgh, 4-0, in Wednesday night's National League Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser to advance to face the Cardinals in the NL Division Series, which begins on Friday at 6:30 p.m. ET on TBS.
It was the first-ever postseason meeting between the Cubs and Pirates, two of baseball's most storied franchises. The Cubs move from one historic matchup to another against the archrival Cardinals, another team against whom they have not played in the postseason.
"We came out and we fought early," said Arrieta. "We got one on the board in the first, then we kind of settled in. We got a couple more a couple innings later, and from there, it was pound the zone and try to get as many outs as quick as possible."
The Pirates did not go down without a fight. After a one-out, bases-loaded rally was snuffed out by an inning-ending double play in the bottom of the sixth inning, the benches cleared in the top of the seventh, when Tony Watson hit Arrieta with a pitch. Sean Rodriguez was ejected.
Arrieta threw a four-hit complete game, which was his intention, and struck out 11. What was his pitch count?
"It was infinity," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.
"I wanted to finish what I started and be the guy to get the last out," Arrieta said. "That was the mind-set."
By ending a nine-game postseason losing streak that dated back to Game 4 of the 2003 NL Championship Series, Chicago advanced to the NL Division Series that begins in St. Louis on Friday. The Cubs' Jon Lester will face the Cards' John Lackey in Game 1 in the first postseason meeting of the longtime NL rivals.
Advancing to the NLDS also means that the Cubs will play at least one postseason game at Wrigley Field, with Game 3 scheduled for Monday.
"The most important thing is we get to play a game at Wrigley," Maddon said. "That was important to me."
Conversely, the Bucs dropped a second consecutive home Wild Card Game, this one short-circuiting a season in which they won 98 regular-season games, the Majors' second-most wins. In 2014, they dropped that Wild Card Game, 8-0, to the eventual World Series champ Giants behind a gem from ace left-hander Madison Bumgarner.
"We had some opportunities, just weren't able to key [in] on those," said Andrew McCutchen, who went 1-for-4. "[Arrieta] found a way to keep coming up with the big pitches when he had to."
Schwarber gave the Cubs an instant one-run lead off Gerrit Cole with a first-inning RBI single, and two innings later followed the second of Dexter Fowler's three hits with his homer. Fowler added a fifth-inning solo homer off Cole, who had not allowed the Cubs a home run in 27 previous innings this season and a total of only two in 58 prior career innings against Chicago.
"I couldn't really get into a good rhythm," said Cole. "I wasn't able to make pitches when I needed to. The two home runs were bad. I was trying to figure things out out there, trying to find something to go to, something to work. It's just one of those nights."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Tempers flared: Arrieta hit Francisco Cervelli in the fifth and Josh Harrison in the sixth, and the Pirates retaliated in the seventh, when Watson plunked him. Both benches emptied, and after plenty of shoving and shouting, the Bucs' Rodriguez was ejected. Home-plate umpire Jeff Nelson issued warnings to both sides. More >
"[Umpire John Hirschbeck] told me that Rodriguez was kicked out for them and the warning was issued and let's get through this thing, and I said, 'I'm with you man, 100 percent,'" Maddon said. "I was really surprised at what happened."
"I'm never trying to hit or hurt anybody," said Arrieta. "Balls were slick tonight. I just lost it a couple times. It kind of ran away from me. I expected that. They're going to take care of their own guys. It's understandable. Everything after that was fine."
Electric crowd unplugged: For the second straight Wild Card Game, a jacked-up PNC Park crowd -- at 40,889, the largest ever -- was quickly subdued. Two batters into the game, the Pirates trailed, 1-0, as Fowler led off with a single, stole second and scored on Schwarber's opposite-field single. More >
Hit parade: Maddon's message to Fowler is "you go, we go," and the veteran followed that advice. In the first inning, he singled, stole second and scored on Schwarber's opposite-field single. Fowler set up Schwarber again in the third; he singled with one out, and the rookie launched a 2-1 pitch from Cole over the right-field bleachers to open a three-run lead. According to Statcast™, the ball came off Schwarber's bat at 111.34 mph and was launched a projected 450 feet. How far has he come? A year ago, Schwarber was playing in the instructional league in Arizona.
"It was a good feeling," said Schwarber. "It came off solid. It was a good situation to do it in. Dexter did a great job today getting on base and getting a homer. Hats off to him. Hats off to the whole team today."
"He hit that ball, and I couldn't even celebrate, because I wanted to see how far it went," Chicago's David Ross said.
Pirates' big shot misfires: The Bucs had one wide-open window to get back in the game, loading the bases with one out in the sixth on Travis Snider's pinch-hit single, Harrison getting hit by a pitch and Addison Russell's error on McCutchen's grounder to short. Then Arrieta quickly shut it down, inducing Starling Marte into an inning-ending double-play grounder. More >
"Pushed a couple times late, squared a couple balls up," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said, "and they turned them into double plays. Arrieta was ahead of almost every count through five. The ball-to-strike sequencing didn't give us a chance to get many offensive counts."
"Unbelievable gutsy performance by the team. [The] 4-0 [score] is misleading. There was a lot of drama in that game, a lot of emotion, a lot of tension. Jake had to find a second gear after all that drama in the sixth inning. ... We're on a nice little run here in October. Congratulations to the Pirates on a great regular season. They [ought] to feel they should be going on, too. It's a great organization. We're thrilled to keep this magical season going." -- Theo Epstein, Cubs president of baseball operations
"There's a lot of positives to take from this. The disappointment in losing this game is obviously something that we feel right now. But walking away from this season, we poured our hearts and souls into it. We grinded through a lot of stuff. We put up when we needed to put up. There's nothing to hang your head over when you're talking about that kind of stuff, talking about a team battling through a season. Wouldn't want to compete with any other guys. It really is like a family in here. It's probably used a little too often, but there's a lot of hard work. We do have a lot to show for it. But tonight, it burns." -- Cole
"I'm really excited. I know our guys are about the opportunity to play in St. Louis and then bring it back to Wrigley. How about that? We get a chance to bring it back to Wrigley. That's pretty solid." -- Maddon
"Sports is hard. Life's not fair. You go out and play. You get beat, you move on. I thanked the guys for the incredible ride they took the coaching staff, the support staff, everybody in that clubhouse on this year." -- Hurdle
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Fowler is the first Cubs player in postseason history with a home run, a stolen base and at least three hits and three runs scored in a game. It was his first game with three hits and three runs scored since June 9, 2013, against the Padres when he was with the Rockies.
Arrieta is the first pitcher in postseason history to fire a shutout while striking out at least 10 batters and walking none. The previous high for strikeouts in a no-walk shutout was nine, set by Cole Hamels in Game 3 of the 2010 NLDS.
WHAT'S NEXT Cubs: Chicago moves on to face St. Louis in the NLDS, with Game 1 at Busch Stadium on Friday at 6:30 p.m. ET (TBS). Lester will be on the hill opposite Lackey. Game 2 is on Saturday in St. Louis (5:30 p.m. ET, TBS), with the series moving to Wrigley Field for Game 3 on Monday (time TBD, TBS). Game 4, if necessary, would be on Tuesday in Chicago (time TBD, TBS), and Game 5, if necessary, would be at Busch Stadium on Oct. 15 (time TBD, TBS).
Pirates: The Bucs' season is complete. They open the 2016 season at home on April 4 against the Cardinals.