It’s not Jake Arrieta getting greedy and the Cubs being cheap when he holds up another jersey in a different city this winter, smiling for the cameras while super-agent Scott Boras watches the press conference unfold, marketing an ace to a new audience.
Even Arrieta admits that if he had Theo Epstein’s job, he would do the exact same thing, letting it play out until a 30-something pitcher hits the free-agent market. And Epstein wouldn’t have left the Boston Red Sox and taken over baseball operations at Clark and Addison if he didn’t believe in the need for change, to get outside the comfort zone and test yourself.
It’s just business, but this still felt very personal on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, Arrieta probably making his last start in a Cubs uniform while the defending World Series champs survived an elimination game against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Three straight trips to the National League Championship Series might have spoiled Cubs fans to the point where standing-room-only Game 4 tickets were selling for $60 on StubHub less than an hour before the 8:01 p.m. first pitch.
By 10:13 p.m., the crowd of 42,195 started booing when manager Joe Maddon popped out of the dugout in the seventh inning to take the ball from Arrieta after 111 pitches. It turned into a standing ovation as Arrieta walked off the mound and tipped his cap, his shaved head set against a mountain-man beard.
“Hopefully, it’s not a goodbye,” Arrieta said after a dramatic 3-2 win, surrounded by reporters at his locker. “It’s a thank you, obviously. I still intend to have another start in this ballpark.
“If that’s where it ends, I did my best and I left it all out there. But we’ve won four in a row plenty of times this year. And there’s no reason we can’t do it again.”
So many times, Arrieta has been worth the price of admission, must-see TV through two no-hitters and those two World Series games he won on the road last year against the Cleveland Indians. None of this would have been possible without the Cubs finding a winning lottery ticket in that Scott Feldman flip deal with the Baltimore Orioles on July 2, 2013.
“I took a little bit of extra time in between pitches,” Arrieta said, “just to look around, foul pole to foul pole, behind home plate, just to relish it and take it in. You got the fans on their feet, pulling on the same side of the rope. It breeds some added energy.
“I had that mindset of I’m going to do everything in my power to get it to tomorrow.”
Arrieta’s pitches dart and dive in directions that even he can’t always control, but he has guts, swing-and-miss stuff (nine strikeouts) and the ability to work through traffic. He gave up five walks, hit Chase Utley with a pitch and watched as Cody Bellinger hammered a ball off the video-board ribbon in right field for a third-inning homer.
But lefty reliever Brian Duensing backed Arrieta up with two outs and two runners on in the seventh inning, forcing Bellinger to lift a flyball into shallow left field, keeping it a 3-1 game and setting the stage for a two-inning Wade Davis save.
“Jake was amazing,” Davis said. “He was throwing Wiffle balls, it looked like. Guys were just swinging at balls that started in on the zone and finished a foot off the plate. He’s just got some amazing stuff.”
For perspective on how far this franchise has come, just look at the lineup from Arrieta’s first spot start as a Cub, the second game of a July 30, 2013 doubleheader against the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field:
David DeJesus, CF
Junior Lake, LF
Anthony Rizzo, 1B
Dioner Navarro, C
Luis Valbuena, 2B
Starlin Castro, SS
Cody Ransom, 3B
Cole Gillespie, RF
The Cubs actually sent Arrieta back to Triple-A Iowa for two more starts that summer, part of a mental/mechanical reset and the service-time calculus that would delay his free-agency clock by a year.
By 2015, Arrieta’s raw talent and natural confidence converged with a young, inexperienced team that caught fire in the second half, his Cy Young Award campaign fueling 97 wins and the momentum for chairman Tom Ricketts to authorize a spending spree on free agents that almost totaled $290 million.
"That was pretty special,” Maddon said. “I've never witnessed on the field that kind of consistent performance from a pitcher. It was other-worldly, right down to the wild-card game.
“My God, you pretty much knew if you scored one or two runs, you're going to win that night somehow. I don't know how this is going to look moving forward. But I know one thing, man, that one year of watching him play was different. It was a throwback to the ‘60s kind of pitching (I watched) as a kid.
“He's special – his work ethic and who he is and how he goes about his business. He's a very special young man.”
But Arrieta really isn’t in the mood to wonder if this is the end scene to this chapter of his life.
“There’s a little thought of that, yeah, because you never know,” Arrieta said. “But at the same time, now that the game’s over, it’s out of sight, out of mind. The thought process for me now is to be ready if I’m needed.”
Their lofty goals include a weekend in sunny SoCal, but Anthony Rizzo thinks the only way to achieve them is for the Cubs to stay focused on the minor details. To realize the nearly impossible, the Cubs believe they can’t get too far ahead of themselves.
Frankly, that’s a good idea.
Even though the Cubs managed to stave off elimination on Wednesday night, they’re still in a very bad way. The Cubs’ chances of repeating as World Series champions are technically alive courtesy of a 3-2 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series. But it doesn’t change the fact that if the Cubs are to become only the second team in 36 tries to overcome a 3-0 series deficit, they’ll have to do it with a stagnant offense and a shaky bullpen.
“You can’t think about the big picture in these games,” Rizzo said. “You’ve got to go one pitch at a time. It doesn’t matter what you did that pitch before, you’ve gotta go to the next one and move on.
“We want to have a good weekend in LA. We want to go to LA this weekend and get out there and play some more baseball. We’re not ready to go home.”
The Cubs know they’re up against long odds. They’re aware that a number of teams have been in their position before and failed miserably. Only the Boston Red Sox have overcome a 3-0 deficit when they rallied to topple the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS.
Still, the Cubs have managed to stay loose and focused despite their predicament.
“We're not putting pressure on ourselves,” outfielder Kyle Schwarber said. “We're just going out there and we're worrying about playing our game. We're not panicked.”
Perhaps it’s because they’ve been here before. It could be their manager and his ability to keep things loose. Or maybe it’s just that this group has experienced it all together over the past two-plus seasons.
For whatever reason, the Cubs are comfortable.
“We’ve dealt with a lot of failure,” shortstop Addison Russell said. “We’ve dealt with our backs against the wall. It’s just about how you mentally prepare and I feel like with the bunch of guys we have, they’ve been on that run with us.
“I would say it’s a little bit more familiar to contain all the eagerness and anxiousness.”
[MORE CUBS-DODGERS: 'I might come running out of the clubhouse in my jockstrap']
There have been a ton of tribulations for this group to absorb.
Heading into Wednesday’s contest, the Cubs had the lowest batting average (.172) of any postseason team that had played eight games. Their .255 on-base percentage was the third-worst of those 145 teams and the 2.63 runs per game was fifth.
Javy Baez lifted the team’s spirits on Wednesday as he broke out of his postseason slumber with two solo home runs. Willson Contreras also delivered a bolt from the heavens with a 491-foot solo homer off the scoreboard.
“It’s just good energy,” Rizzo said.
Still, the Cubs couldn’t pull away, which left them in a position where they needed Herculean efforts from Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis. And it won’t get any easier on Thursday with Clayton Kershaw on the mound.
Then there’s the bullpen, which entered Game 4 with 23 walks issued, the most ever by any postseason team that had played eight games. Aside from Davis, who Joe Maddon ruled out for Game 5, Cubs relievers have been mostly shaky.
That’s not a good formula for a team that has constantly found itself in a number of close ballgames.
But those are the details the Cubs know they must avoid thinking about if they want to spend another weekend at Dodger Stadium. Instead of focusing on their flaws, they’re embracing the moment.
“I want there to be pressure,” Maddon said. “I want there to be a carrot at the end of the stick. I want all of that. I talk about never putting the pressure to exceed the pleasure, just meaning to handle the moment.
“We started this with a trip to Omaha, Nebraska (in spring) … and now we are here, coming on October 19th.
“It’s a lot of time in between. So, there’s a lot of different moments that occur Some are pressurized, and that’s good. Otherwise you’re home cooking steaks right now.”