MESA, Ariz. – Jake Arrieta took his game to a completely different place last season, putting the Cubs on his shoulders and winning the National League Cy Young Award.
Arrieta etched his name into the record books with a dominant run that echoed Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson and Doc Gooden in their prime. His 0.41 ERA in his final 12 starts (11-0) is the lowest for any pitcher from Aug. 1 through the season’s end since that became an official stat.
That doesn’t include the physical demands and emotional drain from three postseason starts that nearly pushed Arrieta’s innings total to 250. Mentally, he tried to visualize everything and eventually figured out what worked — and what didn’t — after a disappointing start to his career with the Baltimore Orioles.
Now the question becomes: Can Arrieta get back to that almost unconscious state?
“I am locked in like that,” Arrieta said without hesitation on Saturday afternoon, standing inside the Sloan Park clubhouse. “I’m right there.”
Arrieta had just thrown five scoreless innings against a Colorado Rockies Triple-A team that didn’t really make any hard contact against him (which makes those hitters like just about any lineup that faced him after the All-Star break last season).
“It’s a record in all of baseball — ever,” Arrieta said. “So to say I’m going to have those numbers again is probably not realistic. But they’re going to be good. I know that.”
Anything seems possible at Cubs camp, where a motivational speaker used a sledgehammer to break a cement brick over manager Joe Maddon’s chest during the team meeting.
The Cubs weren’t trolling the White Sox when they had RBI teams (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) from Chicago and Arizona join them in their team stretch. (This trip had been planned in advance, long before all the Adam LaRoche drama.)
Addison Russell then did his Michael Jackson impression during the daily dance session/mosh pit that leads into the start of the workout.
Arrieta — who brought a sense of swagger to this team — fits perfectly in this environment. So in tune with his body and his mechanics, he estimated he exerted around 80-percent effort while giving up two hits and one walk and getting four strikeouts.
Everything looked sharp to Miguel Montero, who caught 24 of Arrieta’s starts last season (22-6, 1.77 ERA), plus three more in the playoffs, including that complete-game shutout of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the wild-card round.
“That could be the best year of his career,” Montero said. “It’s tough to repeat. (But) if he wins 18 games with an ERA (around) 2.20 or 2.30 or 2.50, it’s a really good year. That’s Cy Young numbers right there.
“And people will be maybe a little bit disappointed because of that? I don’t think you can be disappointed. I remember playing with (Paul) Goldschmidt (in Arizona and he) hit 30-something homers, .320/.330 (average), 130 RBIs. Can you do it again?
“That’s tough to repeat. It doesn’t matter who you are. (But) I don’t see why not. He’s got the potential to do it.”
Arrieta — who will make his next start on Thursday against the San Francisco Giants in an ESPN game — certainly won’t argue that point. He believes this stuff would play on April 4 at Angel Stadium of Anaheim against Mike Trout and Albert Pujols.
“I could have started Opening Day today,” Arrieta said. “I threw 60 pitches with very little effort. I could have easily gone 20 or 30 more.”
After silencing the blackout crowd at PNC Park, Arrieta knows what it’s like to feel invincible. It didn’t matter that this was March 19 on Field 6.
“It gets to a point where you don’t even realize that,” Arrieta said. “It’s just me and the catcher. I kind of see the umpire and the hitter in the box. But I think (it’s) just getting locked in and focusing mentally.
“Go back to Pittsburgh in the wild-card game — I was able to pretty much drown out the entire atmosphere and focus on Miggy behind the plate.”