PITTSBURGH -- As champagne dripped from his nose and matted down his close-cropped hair, Cubs rookie Kyle Schwarber was not only smiling, but he began to smirk. As the party raged on in front of him, Schwarber could still see the baseball that disappeared behind the right-field stands at PNC Park.
"I watched it," Schwarber admitted after Chicago's 4-0 triumph over the Pirates on Wednesday night, a victory that sealed a date with the rival Cardinals in the National League Division Series, which will begin with the series opener on Friday, airing at 5:30 p.m. CT on TBS.
In the NL Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser, Schwarber and leadoff man Dexter Fowler powered an early offensive attack that chased Pittsburgh ace Gerrit Cole after five innings. Schwarber launched a majestic third-inning home run that will remain in the memories of both Cubs and Pirates fans for years to come. Fowler set the table with three hits, including a solo homer, and scored three runs.
By the fifth inning, the Cubs dug the Pirates into a 4-0 hole that probably felt twice as deep with Chicago ace and NL Cy Young Award contender Jake Arrieta on the hill. The overpowering right-hander allowed only four earned runs in his final 91 1/3 innings of the regular season, and Schwarber and Fowler saw to it that five were required to stop Chicago's rotation leader.
For the Cubs, seeing four runs on the scoreboard and Arrieta on the mound is a comfortable feeling.
"It definitely is, especially playing center field," Fowler said. "You see how his ball's moving, and you see the swings guys are taking."
Arrieta made their work hold up, blanking Pittsburgh in an incredible four-hit shutout.
Ten pitches into the night, Chicago had a 1-0 lead on Cole and the Pirates. A combination of early singles and a timely stolen base by Fowler helped the Cubs strike against Cole in the inning that has been his weakness throughout this season.
With PNC Park's black-clad crowd already at a raucous decibel level, Fowler led off the contest with a single that dropped just in front of center fielder Andrew McCutchen. Fowler promptly swiped second base, narrowly beating the throw from Pittsburgh catcher Francisco Cervelli to give Chicago its first runner in scoring position.
"It was awesome to put a little pressure on him," Fowler said. "At the same time, with that guy on the mound, that's what you have to do -- don't let him get comfortable."
Cole, who gave up more runs in the first inning (14) than any other frame during the regular season, then allowed a single to left field off the bat of Schwarber. Fowler raced home from second base, putting the Pirates in a quick hole and giving Arrieta an early lead. While Cole dodged further damage in the opening inning, Chicago would strike again in the third.
With one out, Fowler singled to right field, setting up Schwarber's first career postseason home run. Schwarber used a powerful swing to rip a pitch from Cole deep into the Pittsburgh night, sending it over the stands for a home run that traveled a projected distance of 450 feet, according to Statcast™. The ball rocketed off his bat at an exit velocity of 111.34 mph.
"It was a good feeling," Schwarber said. "You don't really feel it hit the bat. You just see it go."
It was not only the hardest-hit homer this year for Schwarber -- his previous best was a 110.32-mph blast on Aug. 6 -- but it was the third-longest homer of the season by a Cubs batter. Rookie slugger Kris Bryant holds claim to the top two shots: a 495-foot blast on Sept. 6 and a 477-foot shot on May 15.
Fowler later added a solo homer off Cole in the fifth to pad Chicago's lead. The blasts were the first surrendered to the Cubs by Cole this season -- he made four regular-season starts against Chicago, tossing 25 1/3 innings. It was also the first time Cole allowed two homers in a game since May 27.
Schwarber became the first Cubs player since 2003 (Aramis Ramirez and Alex Gonzalez) to have a postseason game with at least one homer, two hits and three RBIs. Fowler joined Phil Cavarretta (1945 World Series) as the only Cubs hitters in the team's postseason history to have a homer plus three hits and three runs scored.
"If he goes, we go," said Schwarber, repeating a mantra that Cubs manager Joe Maddon has had for Fowler all season. "He did what a leadoff guy does in the first inning. He hits a single, steals second and we get him in."
As Schwarber spoke, he was quickly drenched in another round of champagne.
Fowler's eyes lit up at the mention of the rookie's tape-measure blast.
"Kyle's awesome," Fowler said. "Him swinging the bat, there's always a chance he hits a homer."