PHILADELPHIA – Jake Arrieta took care of the worst team in baseball inside a quiet stadium that had entire sections of empty seats.
Joe Maddon’s Cubs have embraced the idea of trying to play the same game all the time, whether it’s March 7 in the Cactus League or Oct. 7 in the National League’s wild-card playoff.
That’s where this surprising season appears to be heading, as the Cubs moved another step closer with a 5-1 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 1 of Friday’s doubleheader at Citizens Bank Park.
“I think about pitching in October every day,” Arrieta said. “But it’s really not going to be any different. I know it’s a different stage, people are waving towels. (But) it’s the same (game).
“It’s a crazy atmosphere. But whether there’s 45-, 50,000 – or 10,000 – it doesn’t make what I have to do any different.”
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Arrieta notched his 19th win in a dead atmosphere, handcuffing the Phillies for eight innings and only allowing Aaron Altherr’s solo home run, cutting his ERA down to 1.99.
“It is good, but that’s what I expect,” Arrieta said. “That’s what the team needs, so that’s what I try and give us.”
After that no-hitter at Dodger Stadium, 20 wins would be yet another sign that Arrieta is one of the game’s elite pitchers.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” Arrieta said. “After the season’s over, you look at your line and you can kind of appreciate it then. But it’s just really not even where my mind’s at right now.”
Arrieta will go for No. 20 on Wednesday on Comcast SportsNet against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park, where the Cubs could return for the wild-card matchup next month against Gerrit Cole.
The Cubs have already settled one debate internally – Arrieta or Jon Lester? – so the next one for fans and media types will be whether or not there’s a home-field advantage in the wild-card game.
“It’s all about the starting pitcher – both sides – on that particular game,” Maddon said. “I think you want it for your fans, as much as anything. But to say it gives you an advantage or disadvantage actually playing the game – I don’t know that it does.”
It’s been 16 straight quality starts for Arrieta, the longest stretch for a Cubs pitcher since Lon Warneke (17) in 1933. The last time Arrieta didn’t finish six innings was against the Cleveland Indians on June 16, the same night the Golden State Warriors won the NBA Finals.
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In his next start, Arrieta threw a complete-game shutout against the Minnesota Twins, beginning the run that would launch him into the Cy Young Award conversation with Los Angeles aces Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.
“I definitely believe our guy deserves it, no question,” Maddon said. “I really thought everything kind of jumped from that moment. I’ve always believed that when a young starter pitches a complete game like that, it can really propel them. It’s kind of like they taste blood in the water.
“My vote’s for Jake. The other guys are really good. It’s going to be an interesting conversation, no question. It’s good for baseball to have all that discussion and it’s going to be hard to argue against any of the trinity.”
Arrieta notched his 200th strikeout in the second inning, freezing Cody Asche with a curveball. It looks like Arrieta’s peaking at the right time, his focus, swagger and execution reaching another level on the way to October.
A cynical way to look at it would be a young team might actually benefit from going on the road, sharpening the focus for the wild-card game and minimizing certain distractions.
It would mean getting away from the Wrigley Field fishbowl, where there is so much history and the potential for wild mood swings if the Cubs get down early.
“It’s possible,” Maddon said. “I don’t really apply myself there that much. I just know that it would come down to the two starting pitchers on that particular day: Who pitches the better game?
“That’s what it’s going to be. It’s all about that all the time. So I’m not concerned either way.”
Especially if Arrieta gets the ball in a win-or-else situation and stares down the Pirates.
“Nothing fazes me,” Arrieta said.