Whether or not Jake Arrieta took it as an All-Star snub, the Cubs still have a top-of-the-line pitcher they would feel comfortable starting in Game 1 of a playoff series.
That dream is closer to reality than anyone could have expected two years ago, when the Cubs acquired Arrieta from the Baltimore Orioles in the Scott Feldman sign-and-flip deal.
Arrieta dominated the White Sox on Sunday, closing out the first half in style with a 3-1 complete-game victory that stopped the Cubs from being swept out of Wrigleyville.
Arrieta allowed only two hits all afternoon, striking out the side in the first inning and the ninth inning while giving up zero walks. He also hit his first career home run, driving Jose Quintana’s 90 mph fastball over the left-field wall in the fifth inning.
At a time when so many other teams that won the offseason look like trade-deadline sellers, Joe Maddon’s Cubs scattered for the All-Star break with a 47-40 record and legitimate playoff expectations, holding a one-game lead over the New York Mets for the National League’s second wild card.
“We’ve seen a lot of positives,” Arrieta said. “There’s a lot of things that have been obvious weaknesses throughout the course of the first half that we know we have to get better at, but that’s just the way the season is.
“Joe’s alluded to it several times in the past that we’re going to stink for certain periods of time, and we’re going to be incredible for certain periods of time. How can we minimize those times where we’re not very good?
“It’s easy to kind of hang your head and let the frustration set in … I think we’ve shown the ability (to) not let something linger for too long of a period of time, and come together as one.”
Good starting pitching creates that sense of momentum. Arrieta has backed up all his big talk and is now 10-5 with a 2.66 ERA, a 0.99 WHIP and 123 strikeouts in 121-plus innings.
Maddon watched Arrieta up close when he managed in the American League East. The Tampa Bay Rays saw Arrieta as a guy who couldn’t control his fastball, driving the pitch count up to around 100 and waiting for him to break by the fourth or fifth inning.
Arrieta needed only 106 pitches to slice through the White Sox (41-45) in a quick game that lasted two hours and 18 minutes. It was a great all-around performance to end a three-game series that drew big crowds (124,854 total) but didn’t generate all that much buzz.
Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer will keep looking to add at least another starter by July 31, but Arrieta continuing to pitch like a Cy Young Award vote-getter will be key to any second-half surge.
“I intend to go out there and pitch at an elite level and have some dominant performances,” Arrieta said. “My mindset is not on wins or ERA or innings. I want to go out there and throw a shutout every time.
[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]
“If I keep (that) killer instinct, have that aggressive mentality from the first pitch to the last pitch, I feel like I’ll be pretty deep into the games with some pretty good numbers to show for it.
“I know if I do that…we’re going to come out ahead quite a bit.”
Maybe because it’s been such a long process after spending time on the Triple-A level in 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013, Arrieta didn’t want to make the All-Star Game about himself and looked forward to watching teammates Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant in Monday night’s Home Run Derby.
“Those individual accolades are great,” Arrieta said. “But I know my teammates can count on me to come up big for us when the moment arises. I thought about that stuff a little bit several days ago, but it’s out of sight, out of mind now. I’m actually looking forward to having a couple days off and doing some things with the kids.”