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Wild Card win just first step for savvy Cubs

PITTSBURGH -- How do you end a 107-year drought?

You have to start somewhere, and if this turns out to be The Year, history will record that the beginning of the end came at PNC Park, with Jake Arrieta dominating the Pirates -- as he has so many opponents during a season in which he's made manager Joe Maddon think about Bob Gibson, circa 1968 -- in Wednesday night's 4-0 win in the National League Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser to advance to meet the Cardinals in the NL Division Series, which begins Friday at Busch Stadium (5:30 p.m. CT on TBS).

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Maddon joked that Arrieta's pitch limit on Wednesday was "infinity.'' He dropped both a Joe Namath and a Gibson on Arrieta in his postgame interview, saying that the Arrieta of recent months has carried himself with the confidence of Namath in guaranteeing victory in the Super Bowl and the Cardinals Hall of Famer he grew up admiring.

Video: NL WC: Maddon compares Arrieta to Bob Gibson

"I would say in my experience as a kid growing up, I saw Mr. Gibson out there tonight,'' Maddon said.

An ace like Gibson gives a team a chance to do remarkable things in October, as the Dodgers saw with Orel Hershiser in 1988 and the Giants with Madison Bumgarner just last year. But still it's quite a leap to take any team that just won the Wild Card Game and project them as the one on the top of the heap at the end.

So back to the question -- how do you end a drought that has stretched since 1908.

You have to start somewhere, and team owner Tom Ricketts figured he'd try something new for the franchise he had purchased -- a real commitment to player development and scouting. He hired president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, who hired Maddon, and now the Cubs find themselves with a collection of exceptional players, like Arrieta and Kyle Schwarber, the two who combined to carry the Cubs to their first postseason victory since Game 4 of the 2003 NL Championship Series.

Video: NL WC: Schwarber clubs 450-foot shot vs. Bucs

It came at PNC Park, where 40,889 found themselves subdued from the start. But there was the usual large traveling contingent of Cubs fans on hand, including A-listers like Eddie Vedder, John Cusack and David Axelrod, the former Chicago Tribune staffer who orchestrated Barack Obama's presidential campaigns. :: NL Wild Card Game: Cubs vs. Pirates -- Coverage ::

There's a feeling that something special is happening for the Cubs, quicker than anyone expected. It picked up steam in early August, when Maddon switched Addison Russell to shortstop. It found another gear at the end of that month when Arrieta no-hit the Dodgers and has kicked into overdrive the last couple of weeks.

Arrieta's four-hit, 11-strikeout performance gave the Cubs their 98th win of the year, eliminating a Pittsburgh team that won 98 regular-season games.

"Unfortunately, one of us had to go,'' Arrieta said. "We were able to come out early and get that run in the first, a big knock by Schwarber, a huge leadoff hit by Dexter [Fowler].

Except for the Pirates hitting Arrieta with a pitch after he had plunked two Bucs, there wasn't nearly as much drama as had been anticipated.

Video: NL WC: Hit batters lead to benches clearing

Schwarber's monster shot over the right-field bleachers, projected by Statcast™ to travel 450 feet, and Fowler's three-hit night, capped by his solo home run, gave the Cubs control early as they won their ninth game in a row, with the last seven coming away from Wrigley Field.

Schwarber, Fowler go deep, set tone in win

Kris Bryant made two highlight-reel plays at third base and Russell started a double play on a smoked ground ball the one time the Pirates got runners into scoring position, loading the bases in the sixth inning.

Video: NL WC: Arrieta induces huge double play to escape jam

And now it gets even more fun.

The Cubs' charter left Pittsburgh headed to St. Louis, where they'll meet the Cards in an NL Division Series that features the two winningest MLB teams still alive. The teams last met at Wrigley Field on Sept. 18-20, with the Cubs winning two of three in an emotional series that featured some pointed rhetoric from Maddon and an exchange of hit batters, after Dan Haren plunked Matt Holliday in the head with a pitch.

"I'm really excited about it,'' Maddon said. "I'm already excited about it. Everybody knows I grew up a Cardinal fan, and I get this opportunity as manager to work versus them in a Division Series in 2015. That's pretty awesome, man.''

Video: NL WC: Maddon on Arrieta's performance, Wild Card win

For as big of an impact as Maddon has had in building swagger into a team coming off five consecutive losing seasons, there's no question he arrived at the exact right moment in time. Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Jason McLeod -- the guys who orchestrated that trade that landed Arrieta from Baltimore and picked Bryant and Schwarber from the Draft pool -- have stocked the organization with better young talent, both in quality and quantity, than it has ever had.

"You don't think that these guys are 21, 23 years old, because they don't play like it,'' Arrieta said. "They have elevated their play to a level that's beyond their years, and it's one of the big reasons we're here. … Our core group of young players has just been exception from the get-go this year.''

Jon Lester, veteran of two World Series triumphs in Boston, is lined up to face former Red Sox teammate John Lackey when the NLDS begins on Friday at Busch Stadium. Arrieta will work Game 3 on Monday at Wrigley, and that's the only time he can start in the best-of-five series.

While the Cubs and Cardinals are traditional rivals, they've mostly battled only over signage in downstate Illinois taverns. The Cubs have rarely been the Cards' equal on the field, and Maddon saw a gap between the teams as recently as the first couple of months this season.

But Maddon's team has grown up faster than even he envisioned. The organization's history is still its history, but Epstein and Maddon have created a feeling that the only thing that matters is how good their team can become, not anything to do with billy goats or ancient heartbreaks.

Maybe the problem all those years was the Cubs didn't have good enough players, or at least not enough of them. Ricketts and Epstein set out to change that dynamic, and you'd have to say that was a pretty good place to start.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for
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