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Upstart Cubs face steady Pirates in NL wild card

FILE - At left, in a June 26, 2015, file photo, Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jake Arrieta throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals, in St. Louis. At right, in an Aug. 17, 2015, file photo, Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Gerrit Cole (45) throws against the Arizona Diamondbacks in a baseball game, in Pittsburgh. The two aces _ Cole, a former No. 1 pick and Arrieta a 29-year-old who has found his stuff with the Cubs _ face off in the NL wild card game on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015. (AP Photo/File)
FILE - At left, in a June 26, 2015, file photo, Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jake Arrieta throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals, in St. Louis. At right, in an Aug. 17, 2015, file photo, Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Gerrit Cole (45) throws against the Arizona Diamondbacks in a baseball game, in Pittsburgh. The two aces _ Cole, a former No. 1 pick and Arrieta a 29-year-old who has found his stuff with the Cubs _ face off in the NL wild card game on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015. (AP Photo/File) AP

PITTSBURGH -- The hot, young talent. The emerging ace with the electric stuff. The relentlessly upbeat manager. The giddy relief that comes with washing away years of futility.

Yeah, Andrew McCutchen has seen this script before.

Two years ago, it was star center fielder and the rest of the Pittsburgh Pirates who found themselves as baseball's new darlings when they crashed the playoffs for the first time in two decades.

Now it's the Chicago Cubs, whose rebuilding project hit warp speed somewhere between Joe Maddon's hire last winter and rookie slugger Kris Bryant's arrival in April.

"They've opened a lot of eyes," McCutchen said. "We were the hype in 2013. Look at what we did. Everybody was on us ... now it's `Let's talk about the Cubs."'

The Pirates can change the subject quickly Wednesday night in the NL wild-card game. The winner gets the St. Louis Cardinals in the Division Series starting Friday.

The clubs that combined for 195 wins both believe they can make a run provided they can survive baseball's version of a high-wire coin flip.

Heady territory for two franchises that have spent most of this millennium taking turns at the bottom of the NL Central.

Those days have long since passed in Pittsburgh, making its third straight playoff appearance. The Cubs hope to say the same thing in Chicago regardless of a history filled with curses -- from billy goats to black cats to Steve Bartman -- and a World Series drought at 107 years and counting.

The weight of failure, however, hardly appears to be wearing on a team so loose Cy Young candidate Jake Arrieta took to Twitter to tweak the Pirates' fan base after a parody account warned him of what was coming at what is sure to be a rowdy PNC Park.

Arrieta tweeted back "whatever helps keep your hope alive, just know it doesn't matter." Don't get the well-bearded 29-year-old who led the majors with 22 wins and posted an 0.75 ERA after the All-Star break -- no, that's not a typo -- wrong. He wasn't guaranteeing victory so much as trying to savor a moment he believed would come even if others did not.

The tall right-hander who never seemed to fit in early in his career in Baltimore has supplanted Jon Lester as Chicago's No. 1 starter.

When he's on, Arrieta is borderline unhittable. The Pirates managed a lone single off him in a 4-0 Cubs' win on Sept. 27 and Arrieta has allowed four earned runs combined since Aug. 1.

That success has sent his confidence soaring. There isn't any one thing that's changed from those difficult years with the Orioles. He simply matured, tweaking his delivery and his mental approach. It's all about the now. Not the last pitch. Not the next one. This one.

In that sense, Arrieta will face a kindred spirit in Pittsburgh starter Gerrit Cole.

Unlike Arrieta, a late bloomer, Cole has been groomed for this stage from the day the Pirates took him with the first overall pick in the 2011 draft.

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