Jake Arrieta answered any doubters on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, shutting down the New York Mets and showing the stuff that made him the National League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner.
For a team built to finally win the World Series this year – with Arrieta supposed to be the Game 1 starter in a playoff rotation – that means more than a final score in the middle of July. Maybe that’s why the Cubs had Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” playing on the clubhouse sound system after a 2-1 loss.
No awkward silence, no staring at the carpet, no heads buried in lockers after Mets closer Jeurys Familia escaped a bases-loaded, no-outs, ninth-inning jam, quieting the raucous crowd (41,456) on its feet watching a rematch of last year’s NL Championship Series.
“That was a little more like it,” Arrieta said moments after sitting down in the interview room. “It could be significantly better, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”
The Cubs (56-37) still have almost two weeks until the Aug. 1 trade deadline to figure out how to reconfigure their bullpen around closer Hector Rondon, who lost the game in the ninth inning when defense-first catcher Rene Rivera lined a two-out, go-ahead RBI single into right field.
Once again, the Cubs couldn’t come through in the clutch against New York’s power pitching, managing only an unearned run against Noah Syndergaard, going 2-for-13 with runners in scoring position, striking out nine times and letting Familia (33-for-33 in save chances this season) off the hook when Kris Bryant grounded into a game-ending double play.
But even with the no-decision, Arrieta is still the story here, hitting the reset button after a 10-day layoff and the understandable decision to not pitch in the All-Star Game, rest his body and clear his head.
Arrieta came out firing, throwing 16 of his first 17 pitches for strikes, and 25 of his first 27, putting up zeroes through the first five innings. The only offense the defending NL champs could generate against Arrieta came in the sixth inning, when Jose Reyes drove a ball into the right-field corner for a leadoff triple and scored Curtis Granderson’s sacrifice fly.
“That’s really when I’m at my best,” Arrieta said, “challenging guys right away from the first pitch and really putting them on the defensive side and making them swing the bat. I expect to pitch more like this, as far as the aggressiveness and keeping the ball down in the strike zone with everything.”
This wasn’t just outside noise from the fans, the Chicago media and scouts following the Cubs. Arrieta had been grinding through starts (4.81 ERA since the beginning of June) and searching for answers. Even eternally positive manager Joe Maddon admitted his ace hadn’t put it all together yet, missing the crisp delivery and pinpoint control that fueled one of the greatest runs by anyone who’s ever picked up a baseball.
Arrieta lasted seven innings for the first time since June 11, retiring 12 consecutive batters during one stretch and allowing only five hits and finishing with eight strikeouts against one walk.
“I’ve tried to stay the same throughout,” Arrieta said, “regardless of the other results or the circumstances, understanding that what I’ve done in between starts has been very effective over a long stretch. With that said, it’s still nice to come out and keep your team in the game, especially when the guy on the other side is doing the same thing.”
The Cubs will need Arrieta at the top of his game in October, when great pitching beats teams like the Mets (50-43). Even with a 12-4 record and a 2.60 ERA, the questions will keep coming, because so much of this team’s identity is tied up in Jake Being Jake.
“I hear it,” Arrieta said. “I know it’s out there from you guys (in the media). And that’s fine. I understand we need to talk about it. I’m not sure exactly where I’m at in the league, but I’m sure it’s in the top 10.
“Can I get better? Yes, but there’s going to be times where we struggle. It’s just part of this game. The other guys over there are good, too. So trying to keep those slumps to a minimum and move forward is the idea.”