ATLANTA — The Cubs can anchor themselves in the National League playoff race by beating up on bottom-feeders for the next few weeks.
This weekend’s series against the below-.500 Atlanta Braves was a good starting point. Right-hander Jake Arrieta pitched his side to a 4-1 win Sunday evening at Turner Field, securing a series victory against one of the teams the Cubs should beat if they’re serious about ending a seven-year playoff drought.
“We play really well against really good teams and it’s time for us to step it up," Arrieta said. "Every team’s good, but at the same time, there are teams we’re supposed to beat and we need to beat them.”
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The Cubs are 22-20 against teams that currently have a losing record, though that’s buoyed by a 7-2 record against the Cincinnati Reds — against whom the Cubs open a four-game series on Monday at Great American Ballpark. After that series, the Cubs return home for three against the Philadelphia Phillies and three against the Colorado Rockies, then head up I-90 for a four-game series against the Milwaukee Brewers. The Cubs won’t play a game against a team over .500 until heading to PNC Park to face the Pittsburgh Pirates on Aug. 3.
Arrieta fired seven shutout innings against the Braves on a muggy, warm afternoon in Atlanta, scattering three hits and three walks with 10 strikeouts. Jonathan Herrera’s two-run single, Jorge Soler’s solo home run — his first since May 29 — and Chris Coghlan’s RBI double provided more than enough support for the 29-year-old starter.
Over his last six starts, Arrieta has an 0.96 ERA with 44 strikeouts, seven walks and no home runs allowed — though he did himself homer off White Sox lefty Jose Quintana on July 12.
“He’s just figuring everything out right now,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That’s what’s going on. And I hate to tell you, but there’s actually some more in the tank there. There’s another level of him. So as he gets more self-awareness and is really able to deal with all these weapons that the has, he’s going to get even better.”
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Since the Cubs acquired him and Pedro Strop from Baltimore for Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger in 2013, Arrieta has a 2.75 ERA in 52 starts. He’s on pace to set career highs in starts and innings pitched this year and has squarely put his disappointing four-year tenure with the Baltimore Orioles in the rearview mirror.
If the Cubs are able to make a strong playoff push over the next two and a half months, Arrieta’s going to be a big reason why, whether he’s facing a good team or one the Cubs have no business losing to.
“You have to come out with the same intensity and the same mentality regardless of the team’s record,” Arrieta said. “And there have been times throughout the first half where we came out maybe a little too laid back and didn’t have that killer instinct and that mindset where we gotta put our foot on somebody’s throat of the situation presents itself.
"And certain times we let those situations slip away. But that’s our job from here on out, to get after teams we need to beat."