ST. LOUIS – Jake Arrieta has lost the air of invincibility that surrounded him during his Cy Young Award season in 2015. Even Joe Maddon – a relentlessly optimistic manager by nature – doesn’t pretend the Cubs expect to ever see that again.
Arrieta went through stretches last year where he looked unsure and out of sync with his mechanics. He still finished with 18 wins and a 3.10 ERA and beat the Cleveland Indians twice in the World Series.
The story of how a last-place team transformed into a championship organization cannot be written without Arrieta, who infused the Cubs with so much attitude and confidence, his Bob Gibson impression helping fuel 97 wins and a spending spree that approached $290 million after the 2015 season.
At the moment, Arrieta symbolizes the 18-19 team that quietly packed up after Sunday afternoon’s 5-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.
“We would obviously like to be playing better than we are right now,” Arrieta said. “I don’t think there’s any reason to panic. I think that the talent we have here will correct itself and start to turn itself around.
“Yeah, we’d like to win a few more games than we are and tighten things up a little bit. But guys are showing up ready to play and going about themselves the right way. We’re just not necessarily getting the results we would like.”
Roughly 25 percent into a contract year, Arrieta now has a 5.44 ERA and one quality start since the first weekend of the season. If the velocity doesn’t keep ticking up – and this signals the start of a steeper decline – then the Cubs are in trouble.
The Cardinals (21-15) already have a 3.5-game lead over the fourth-place Cubs after winning this weekend series. Fireworks erupted in the second inning after Yadier Molina drilled Arrieta’s first-pitch fastball 410 feet into the left-field seats for a two-run homer and flipped his bat away with one hand.
Matt Carpenter crushed another Arrieta fastball 414 feet over the right-center field wall for a two-run homer in the third inning, breaking the 0-for-28 against his old teammate from Texas Christian University.
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Maddon, of course, put his spin on the situation and called it Arrieta’s “best stuff” all year. But even Miguel Montero, the blunt-spoken, veteran catcher, felt the same way. Nothing to see here?
“Honestly,” Montero said, “I think that was the only two bad pitches he made. I said to him after the game: ‘Hey, man, you know what, this could be the turning point for you, because I really liked what I’ve seen. Everything was sharp. That was the best I’ve seen you so far the whole year.’
“The ball was coming out of his hand differently. He has some life to it. I’m happy to see him back pitching that way, because, of course, we’re going to need him.”
The Cardinals did all their damage against Arrieta with those two swings and the Cubs are a team playing without much margin for error right now. Adam Wainwright, who lugged a 6.37 ERA into the game, shut down the Cubs for seven innings. The defense that was supposed to be a constant is no longer playing like the ’85 Bears.
“It’s some bad luck,” Arrieta said. “Right now, it seems like the mistakes I’m making, they’re not fouling them off or taking or swinging and missing. They’re making pretty solid contact. I’m going to continue to be aggressive.
“Obviously, I’d like to not make any mistakes, but the ones I’m making right now are getting taken advantage of.”
There are peripheral numbers – like Arrieta’s strikeout-to-walk ratio (49:13) – and a track record that can be sources of optimism. But at a certain point, the defending champs talking about taking steps in the right direction and trusting the process will get old. This is a bottom-line business.
“I have so much faith and confidence in him and his methods,” Maddon said. “You’re pretty aware that I don’t get kind of off the bandwagon very easily. I really believe he’s going to be fine. I believe it’s just going to be almost like a snap of the fingers – everything’s going to fall back into place.
“I don’t think you’re going to see this slow method of better, better, better, better, great. I just think you’re all of a sudden going to see something’s going to click and he’s going to be back close to where he had been.
“It’s hard to be where he had been when he won the award. I’m not expecting that, but more like what we had seen last year, a lot more consistency in his velocity. Velocity is probably the biggest (thing).”