Alex Avila worked with Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer during Cy Young Award seasons with the Detroit Tigers – and caught Chris Sale and Jose Quintana last year on the South Side – so he knows what an ace looks like.
Avila’s first impression of Jake Arrieta became the biggest takeaway from Wednesday night’s 3-0 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks at Wrigley Field, where the Cubs saw flashes of their 2015 Cy Young Award winner and what that could mean this October.
“A big horse,” Avila said. “He’s like those guys. When they’re out on the mound, you expect good outings. You expect consistency. You prepare for that. He was pretty much everything that I had heard, as far as the way the ball moves, the way he can use his sinker on both sides of the plate, the effectiveness of his breaking balls.”
The Good Jake/Bad Jake narrative has faded away during what’s becoming a strong Boras Corp. push (10-8, 3.86 ERA) toward free agency. Working with Avila for the first time, Arrieta allowed one hit through five innings against a tough Arizona lineup anchored by All-Stars Jake Lamb and Paul Goldschmidt and trade-deadline addition J.D. Martinez.
If not for shortstop Addison Russell’s throwing error in the sixth inning – and Lamb’s two-run chopper that went by first baseman Anthony Rizzo and up the right-field line in the next at-bat – Arrieta might have completely shut down the Diamondbacks (61-46).
Either way, Arrieta didn’t hesitate when asked if he could approximate the 2015 finish that turned him into the hottest pitcher on the planet and transformed the Cubs into playoff contenders.
“Yeah, it’s possible,” Arrieta said. “Yeah, I don’t see why not. I think it’s possible for all our guys to elevate themselves and pitch at a really high level, or compete on defense or at the plate at a level higher than they have currently.
“That’s just having a lot of confidence in the guys that we have. We expect to do some really special things again this season, and we shouldn’t think otherwise.”
Arrieta still didn’t outpitch Zack Godley, an under-the-radar prospect the Cubs traded away in the Miguel Montero deal during the 2014 winter meetings. The night after the offense exploded for 16 runs, the Cubs managed only three singles and two walks in six innings against Godley (5-4, 2.86 ERA), the kind of homegrown pitcher the Theo Epstein regime hasn’t developed yet.
If Montero could have kept his mouth shut last month – or at least softened his public criticism of Arrieta’s issues holding runners on base – the Cubs (57-49) wouldn’t have needed to acquire Avila in a package deal with lefty reliever Justin Wilson before the July 31 deadline.
But Arrieta and Avila met for about 30 minutes on Tuesday to review the game plan and go over Arizona’s hitters and spoke again briefly before Wednesday’s start. Arrieta tied a season-high by pitching seven innings and finished with eight strikeouts against two walks, allowing those two runs (one earned).
Arrieta said: “I told him: ‘Whatever you throw down, regardless of whether I think maybe something else is the better pitch, I’ll trust you.’ I don’t know if I shook him off more than two or three times all night.”
“To be honest with you, I thought it was going to be a little bit more of an adjustment,” Avila said, “as far as getting used to the way he throws and the movement on his pitches behind the plate. But I ended up feeling really comfortable.”
Do the Cubs have a new Arrieta whisperer or another personal-catcher situation? It’s too soon to go there – the Cubs had questions about Avila's defense – but Arrieta isn’t getting questions about his velocity or his mechanics or the walk-year pressures.
“I heard Rizzo allude to the fact that it’s a different feeling in the clubhouse,” Arrieta said. “It’s something that’s palpable in the dugout, in the clubhouse, on the field. We’re in a really good spot. I think that we feed off each other. And that’s what championship teams do.”