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Arrieta ready to carry Cubs on his shoulders

Dominant ace poised for legendary postseason run @philgrogers

PITTSBURGH -- There are some shots that you should never call.

The expectations are too great, the odds too long.

PITTSBURGH -- There are some shots that you should never call.

The expectations are too great, the odds too long.

Jake Arrieta rolling through October, carrying the Cubs to a World Series title on his broad shoulders, is one of those triple bank shots to sink the eight ball, with everyone in the room watching. He might be able to pull it off, but it's unfair -- borderline insane -- to expect it.

:: NL Wild Card Game: Cubs vs. Pirates -- Tune-in info ::

Madison Bumgarner did it for the Giants a year ago, starting in the same exact spot that Arrieta will tonight in the National League Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser (8 p.m. ET, TBS) -- the visiting bullpen at PNC Park, with his every move jeered by the Pirates' fanatical fans. The appreciation for what he was doing grew with every hurdle that the Giants cleared, from the Pirates to the Nationals and Cardinals then, finally, the Royals.

"I was glad everybody got what we got," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said Tuesday. "We got shot down pretty quick and everybody sort of threw their hands up in the air [and said], 'That's it for the Pirates, that's all they've got.' Everybody got some of that. There was a lot. I was glad everybody got it, truthfully, because that was as good pitching as I'd seen in a long time. Everybody deserves to face the best, and they got to.''

During the 2014 season, Bumgarner was outstanding but not consistently dominant, ranking behind the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Johnny Cueto and Adam Wainwright in Cy Young Award consideration. Arrieta arrives with more advance billing.

He's been so good lately that the best parallel to draw heading into postseason is Orel Hershiser in 1988, when he was riding his record streak of 59 consecutive scoreless innings. That worked out pretty well for the Dodgers, if you remember.

Arrieta entered the season as Robin to Jon Lester's Batman, but has exploded onto the scene as an elite arm, like Max Scherzer did in escaping Justin Verlander's long shadow.

His profile is as high as anyone on the field this October, thanks to his 0.75 ERA since the All-Star break and a finishing kick that saw him no-hit the Dodgers on Aug. 30. He allowed only two earned runs in his last nine starts. If his 22-6 record and 1.77 ERA doesn't earn him the Cy Young Award, it will only be because Zack Greinke kept his ERA at 1.66, the lowest mark in 20 years.

This is Arrieta's time, and he isn't backing down from it.

"It's been a long time coming to this moment,'' said Arrieta, 29. "I've been waiting for it for a number of years, and I'm ready.''

Video: Arrieta, Cole set to square off in NL Wild Card Game

Gerrit Cole, the Pirates' ace who finished 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA, is extremely capable of stealing the stage. He's made nine career starts against the Cubs, and Pittsburgh has won eight, the most recent coming Sept. 25 at Wrigley Field.

"We like our guy a lot,'' Hurdle said.

Hurdle bypassed A.J. Burnett to start Cole, then a rookie, in the deciding Game 5 of the 2013 NL Division Series against the Cardinals. He didn't get a crack to match up against Bumgarner last year, as Hurdle had started him in the final regular-season game in an attempt to win the NL Central.

"It was frustrating for all 25 of us playing them,'' Cole said. "I thought we had total confidence in [Edinson Volquez] to get the job done. He pitched his [heart] out. It's just the nature of this one-game Wild Card. It can be the most exciting game of the year and for the other team it can be pretty disappointing.''

No one will be surprised if the Arrieta-Cole matchup produces a 1-0 or 2-1 game, decided by one big hit or one big mistake. Neither team had announced its lineup Tuesday, as coaching staffs and front offices continued to toy with various ways to manufacture and prevent runs.

Cole expects minimal margin for error.

"You can sit here and say he's probably going to go pretty deep and he's probably going to go pretty low,'' Cole said. "You're probably going to have to go pretty deep and probably going to have to go pretty low, too. You kind of know what you're going to get.''

Video: CHC@MIL: Arrieta goes six scoreless to earn 22nd win

Hershiser has long said the key to his success in October was that he tried to maintain the level he achieved during the season, not to do things differently. A lot of players try to raise their level in the biggest games and get themselves in trouble overthrowing or going outside the strike zone to try to be a hero.

Arrieta is working to take the approach that it's his 34th start of the year, not the biggest of his life nor the biggest for his franchise since Kerry Wood started Game 7 of the 2003 NL Championship Series.

"I don't necessarily think it's much different,'' Arrieta said. "It's the same preparation. It's a team that I'm comfortable with analyzing, scouting and pitching against. It's an extremely balanced group of guys in that order who can make a lot of things happen. I feel confident that I can neutralize a lot of their power, a lot of their speed guys, with different [pitch] sequences. I intend to have some pretty good success.''

After his four-hit shutout in the Wild Card Game, Bumgarner went on to make five other starts in the postseason, including two each in the NLCS and World Series, before capping his run with five shutout innings out of the bullpen in the Giants' 3-2 victory in Game 7.

Hershiser was just as effective after his historic finish to the 1988 season, winning MVP honors in both the NLCS and the World Series. That's the template that's out there for Arrieta to follow.

I'm not calling that shot -- if you're trying to pick a winner, just flip a coin -- but until further notice, it's out there, a legendary run waiting to happen.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for

Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates, Jake Arrieta, Gerrit Cole