The first-place Cardinals proved just out of reach.
Turns out, Jake Arrieta and the rapidly maturing Cubs were too.
Arrieta overwhelmed the Pirates in a 4-0 victory in the NL wild-card on Wednesday night, ending #Buctober nine innings after it began much in the same way Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants did last fall on their way to a World Series.
"Two years in a row we've drawn a tough bull," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said.
The Pirates managed just four hits against Arrieta — or a handful less than the number of haymakers utility infielder Sean Rodriguez landed on an unsuspecting water cooler following his ejection in the seventh during a benches clearing dustup after Pittsburgh reliever Tony Watson plunked Arrieta with a fastball.
By then Arrieta was firmly in control and the Pirates were in the final minutes of a spectacular 98-win season that evaporated under a steady stream of Arrieta fastballs.
"It burns. It stings," said Pittsburgh starter Gerrit Cole, who gave up four runs in five innings. "All the negative things you could come up with, that's how it feels right now."
Arrieta struck out 11 without a walk to send the Cubs to the NL Division Series in St. Louis starting on Friday.
"I'm exhausted. I haven't felt this way all year," said Arrieta, who led the majors with 22 wins. "This atmosphere, the energy was unbelievable. Tried to use it to the best of my ability. They were loud, they were really loud."
Dexter Fowler homered and scored three times for the Cubs. Kyle Schwarber added a towering two-run shot off Cole as Chicago raced to an early lead and let Arrieta do the rest.
"There was a lot of different things going on out there," said Cole, who had pitched brilliantly down the stretch to help the Pirates to the second-best record in the majors. "I just couldn't find that rhythm, that consistency to be able to sequence and make some pitches."
The largest crowd ever at PNC Park failed to rattle Arrieta or one of baseball's youngest teams. First-year manager Joe Maddon's club played with swagger and confidence and looked right at home while snapping a nine-game playoff losing streak that dated to the 2003 NL Championship Series.
Pittsburgh was knocked out after narrowly missing their first division title in more than 20 years. The Pirates had the best record in the majors following an 18-22 start. Thrust into the one-game crucible the wild card provides, they hardly played like the more experienced team.
Hurdle shelved slugger Pedro Alvarez — whose 27 homers led the team but whose 23 errors made him a defensive liability — in favor of the more sure-handed Rodriguez to start the game. Hurdle pointed to the athleticism Rodriguez brought as a major factor, figuring the Pirates would need to get creative to score against Arrieta rather than hope Alvarez runs into the kind of mistake Arrieta has avoided nearly all season.
It didn't work out that way.
Chicago took a 1-0 lead two batters into the game when Fowler led off with a single, stole second and scored on a single to left by Schwarber.
The two hooked up again in the third. Fowler singled with one out and Schwarber turned an 88 mph slider from Cole into a massive two-run shot that appeared destined for the downtown Pittsburgh skyline before disappearing over the stands in right field to make it 3-0.
Hurdle inserted Alvarez for Rodriguez in the bottom of the third. Alvarez went 0 for 3 with three strikeouts.
Arrieta retired 10 straight at one point, his only real wobbles coming in the sixth and seventh. Pittsburgh loaded the bases with one out behind a single, a hit batter and an error.
Starling Marte's sharp grounder, however, rolled right to Addison Russell at shortstop. A double play and Arrieta and the Cubs were pumping their fists on the way back to the dugout.
Another double play in the seventh and the visiting clubhouse began preparations for a raucous celebration.
For the Pirates, their offseason begins earlier than expected yet again.
"The loss tonight doesn't define this year we had," centerfielder Andrew McCutchen said. "One loss, granted we're out of it. It doesn't mean we didn't do a lot of things well this year, 98 wins is really, really good."
Just not good enough to head to St. Louis.