PITTSBURGH – If Jake Arrieta’s legendary wild-card performance seems like a long time ago, silencing the Pittsburgh Pirates and the blackout frenzy here last October, well, that’s an eternity in a game built around daily rhythms.
The same goes for the 25-6 start to this season that had Cubs fans, the Chicago media and national outlets feeling so giddy, at least until this blah 27-27 stretch slowly made people realize this team wouldn’t be crowned before the All-Star break.
That set the scene for Friday night at picturesque PNC Park, where Arrieta walked off the mound stone-faced and got booed by a black-and-gold crowd (35,904) that didn’t forget his cocky attitude leading up to that National League one-game playoff. Which is exactly what the Cubs needed then – and might be missing now.
Arrieta couldn’t protect a one-run lead or get a single out in the seventh inning, leaving a 4-4 game in the hands of a shaky bullpen with two runners on. Travis Wood got a groundball, but Anthony Rizzo threw it away when the lefty reliever ran to cover first base, allowing Josh Bell to score the go-ahead run from second.
It unraveled from there in an 8-4 loss, the Cubs looking a little dazed without Arrieta as their stopper, now having lost four games in a row, eight of their last nine and 14 of their last 19. It tested Arrieta’s remarkable patience with the media, turning from insightful to sarcastic when asked where his frustration level is at now.
“I don’t know where low-A is, but maybe I can go there and work on some stuff,” Arrieta said. “I’m good. It’s not ideal. But I like what I do in between starts. And the stuff’s fine. Just got to be better.”
The 2016 team is banking on the idea Arrieta will be turn-out-the-lights dominant. Otherwise, the foundation begins to crack and take on more stress. Since the beginning of June, their ace has a 4.81 ERA and has thrown more than six innings just once, the Cubs winning only three of those seven starts.
Arrieta isn’t deceiving and freezing hitters the same way and doesn’t appear to be in the Pirates’ heads anymore, either, after coming into the game with a career 1.46 ERA against Pittsburgh and only three homers allowed through 80 innings.
This time Arrieta gave up two rockets in the second inning – David Freese drove a pitch onto the right-field deck while Sean Rodriguez hammered another one into the left-field seats – and put the Cubs in a 3-0 hole.
“The best way to describe it is just command,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Last year, we saw him just nailing edges all the time – breaking-ball strike, breaking ball underneath lefties whenever he wanted to.
“This year, he just doesn’t have that same command. The break on the slider/cutter/whatever you want to call it has been more inconsistent. The velocity is close to normal, I think, but it’s just a matter of dotting it up like he did last year.
“It’s not really falling off the cliff regarding stuff. More than anything, it’s about commanding his fastball.”
The Pirates have now won two of their 10 games against the Cubs so far – while going 43-34 versus the rest of the schedule – to edge past the St. Louis Cardinals into second place and cut their division deficit to 7.5 games.
Arrieta at least felt and looked sharper, notching six strikeouts and retiring 10 of 12 before giving up his first and only walk to pinch-hitter Adam Frazier leading off the pivotal seventh inning.
“I got punched in the mouth early,” Arrieta said. “I probably pitched to contact a little too much in certain situations. I just need to find that happy medium of getting ahead, being better on the corners in situations and not letting breaking balls catch too much of the plate.”
Arrieta didn’t quite bring his usual postgame bravado, finding the silver linings on a night where he allowed nine hits and got charged with six earned runs.
“There’s some positives in there,” Arrieta said. “My takeaway is not putting the nail in the coffin when I had the opportunity to do so, and maybe even pitch the eighth. I just let that one get away.”
Arrieta is still 12-4 with a 2.68 ERA, earning his first All-Star selection and deserving that trip to San Diego after all the hard work and perseverance he needed to reach this point.
But Arrieta isn’t back in the zone yet, and let’s be honest: He may never again reach that level of mind/body consciousness he found during the second half of last year’s Cy Young Award campaign. Because those were Cooperstown, all-time numbers, and this game is exponentially more difficult than Arrieta and the Cubs once made it seem.
“I can’t sit here and tell you exactly how that’s going to happen,” Maddon said. “I don’t know exactly what it’s going to take to get him back to close to that performance, because it’s really hard to duplicate what he did last year. But overall, the work’s in there. The dedication’s in there. It’s just not coming out. Good health is still there, so that’s a positive.
“But I’d just be fabricating a reason. I don’t know. It’s just something we have to continually work on regarding the command and feeling good about where he’s throwing his pitches. I don’t have a solid answer.”