Jake Arrieta hits the wall as Mets put Cubs in 0-2 NLCS hole


Jake Arrieta hits the wall as Mets put Cubs in 0-2 NLCS hole

NEW YORK – That aura of invincibility around Jake Arrieta should be gone now, the Cubs no longer feeling quite so unbeatable. The New York Mets ended that fantasy, leaving this dream season only two losses away from being over.

The Cubs quietly left Citi Field after Sunday night’s 4-1 loss, down 0-2 in a best-of-seven National League Championship Series that began with great expectations and now shifts to Wrigley Field with the Mets looking like the team of destiny.

The Mets ambushed Arrieta in the first inning. Any momentum the Cubs hoped to create simply vanished when David Wright lifted an RBI double over the head of Dexter Fowler and onto the warning track in center field. That 1-0 deficit felt even bigger with the temperature dropping to 45 degrees and Noah Syndergaard throwing 99-mph heat.   

The crowd of 44,502 then erupted when red-hot Daniel Murphy reached down and launched Arrieta’s curveball out toward the right-field seats. The ball stayed just inside the orange foul pole, a two-run shot giving Murphy five postseason homers this October.     

"There's not (nearly the same) margin for error (in the playoffs)," Arrieta said. “But at the end of the day, it’s hard to second-guess if the ball’s down a little bit or in a little bit more. Those are the spots you’re trying to locate. Sometimes, they just get to you.”

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Arrieta said he felt fine physically, but he could be hitting the wall here, piling up almost 248 innings, or 92 more than he threw in the majors last season. At a certain point, it might not matter how well you eat or how hard you train or how much you want to be the best.    

“I don’t want to say he’s tired, because he’s in really good shape,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “But he’s a human. He can get tired as well. I don’t think he ever threw this many innings in his life.

“I don’t want to make up any excuses, because I don’t know what he feels like. But that could be (the) case.”  

By the third inning, the Cubs had lefty Travis Wood warming up in the bullpen, which would have been unthinkable while Arrieta put together arguably the greatest second half by a pitcher in major-league history.   

Between August, September, early October and that complete-game shutout of the Pittsburgh Pirates in an emotionally draining wild-card victory, Arrieta had allowed four earned runs combined.

Arrieta noticed he had trouble ratcheting up his velocity this time and worked in more changeups, allowing four runs in five innings on a night where the Cubs needed something closer to a perfect game. 

“I know he’s been huge for us and we kind of set the bar really high,” Montero said. “But he’s a baseball player, man. It’s gonna happen.”

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The St. Louis Cardinals already made Arrieta work in the divisional round, manufacturing four runs in 5.2 innings while the Cubs bailed out the pitcher who might have been their MVP. 

Arrieta covered for his teammates, fronting the rotation, taking pressure off a young lineup and saving the bullpen for a 97-win contender no one saw coming this year. The Cubs hadn’t lost a game Arrieta started since Cole Hamels threw a no-hitter for the Philadelphia Phillies on July 25 at Wrigley Field. Arrieta’s workload could finally be catching up to the Cubs now. 

“I can’t deny that it might be,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I don’t know that. If you ask him, he’ll tell you no. (If) that (radar) gun was correct on the field, he might have been down a mile an hour or two. 

“When that happens…the commitment to the breaking ball is not as definite from the hitter’s perspective, because they’re able to see everything better.

“He was not laboring to throw the ball. (It just) wasn’t as crisp as it had been, that’s all.”

This doesn’t mean Arrieta can’t get his mojo back or shouldn’t be next year’s Opening Day starter or won’t someday land a nine-figure contract. But he might have thrown his final pitch in 2015, no guarantees the Cubs come back to New York for a Game 6. 

“We’ve got work to do,” Arrieta said. “The good thing is we go home, play three games in Wrigley Field and (we’ll) come out ready to go.”

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”