Even as Jake Arrieta defends his Cy Young Award, makes a case to start the All-Star Game and keeps the meter running toward a potential $200 million megadeal, he can talk about not quite having the precise feel he wants, that in his mind he can be 9-0 with a 1.72 ERA and still searching.
The Cubs are surrounded by those enormous expectations, and so much of that involves Arrieta’s evolution into the bearded face of the franchise and one of the best pitchers on the planet. Which makes it a breaking-news alert when the Cubs actually lose when Arrieta pitches.
Until Tuesday night’s 5-0 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers at Wrigley Field, that hadn’t happened in a regular-season game since July 25, 2015, when it only took Cole Hamels throwing a no-hitter for the Philadelphia Phillies.
This time, Scott Kazmir and two Los Angeles relievers combined for a one-hitter. The Dodgers didn’t so much beat Arrieta as they outlasted him, taking advantage of the softer spots in the Cubs bullpen.
“Well, I don’t know if I got outdueled,” said Arrieta, who threw seven scoreless innings to lower his ERA to 1.56. “But Kazmir was good.”
The Cubs had won Arrieta’s last 23 starts, tying the major-league record since 1913, first set by Kris Medlen with the Atlanta Braves between 2010 and 2012. Arrieta is now 20-0 with a 1.01 ERA across his last 24 starts, an unconscious stretch that helped transform the Cubs from a young group learning how to win last summer into a legitimate playoff contender last October and the team with the best record in baseball this year (35-15).
Arrieta ran his pitch count up to 107, ending the possibility to go back out for another inning with three straight two-out walks in the seventh. Arrieta then fired three pitches clocked at 94, 95 and 94 mph, striking out pinch-hitter Justin Turner looking, escaping the bases-loaded jam and causing an eruption from the crowd of 34,681.
“I didn’t want to make a mistake in the middle of the plate,” Arrieta said. “I made some good pitches. Borderline. Didn’t go my way. I pitched around some walks, got into a situation where I had to make a big pitch, and I was able to do so.”
After four Cubs relievers combined to throw seven perfect innings against the Dodgers on Memorial Day, manager Joe Maddon turned the game over to Clayton Richard. The lefty gave up three consecutive singles to the left-handed top of the Los Angeles lineup — Chase Utley, Corey Seager and Adrian Gonzalez — to begin the eighth inning.
Richard walked off the mound without getting an out and the Cubs trailing 1-0. After getting charged with a second run, Richard has now given up eight earned in nine innings this season, and Theo Epstein’s front office will probably have to make upgrading the bullpen a priority at the trade deadline.
“That was the perfect slot for (Richard),” Maddon said, “to attempt to not beat up the rest of your bullpen. It was a tie ballgame. It couldn’t have been lined up any better for him.
“I have a lot of faith in him. We just need to get him more work. But that’s the kind of a moment he’s here for, and it just didn’t happen.”
Arrieta truly burst onto the national scene with that no-hitter at Dodger Stadium on Aug. 30 last year. This time, after a 24-minute rain delay, Gonzalez ended the no-hitter suspense with a two-out single in the first inning. Against Arrieta, the Dodgers (28-25) only managed another Seager single in the third inning.
“Of course, we’ve gotten used to winning when he pitches, but it’s not going to last forever,” Maddon said. “That’s the nature of the game. And he pitched well enough for us to win tonight. But their pitcher was really good, too.”
Kazmir — the All-Star lefty who pitched for Maddon’s 2008 Tampa Bay Rays team that went to the World Series and wound up in independent ball four years later — only allowed a Dexter Fowler single across six innings and finished with seven strikeouts against one walk.
Seager — the 22-year-old shortstop who could become a star at Dodger Stadium — put the game out of reach in the ninth inning when he blasted a three-run homer off Trevor Cahill onto the right-field party deck.
It takes extraordinary circumstances. But Arrieta is, in fact, beatable.
“You play this game long enough, you’re going to lose a game here and there,” Arrieta said. “That’s just kind of part of it. But it was a good streak, and we’ll get started on something else.”