WASHINGTON — Super-agent Scott Boras drove the Max Scherzer comparisons through the media, trying to frame Jake Arrieta’s Cy Young Award pedigree and pitching odometer against that seven-year, $210 million megadeal with the Washington Nationals.
Every inning in each Arrieta start shouldn’t be viewed like a stock ticker, but it became the impossible-to-miss backdrop on Tuesday night at Nationals Park, where Scherzer stared down the Cubs through his blue and brown eyes and dominated in a 6-1 game that didn’t have that same October energy.
Where Scherzer is headed toward his fifth straight All-Star selection, the Cubs can only guess what they will get out of Arrieta from one start to the next, which makes you wonder: How many teams would commit five or six years to an over-30 pitcher like that?
Coming off probably the team’s best win of the season the night before — and a strong last start at Marlins Park where he felt “really close” to where he wanted to be — Arrieta walked off the mound with no outs and two runners on in the fifth inning.
The Nationals ran wild, putting pressure on the Cubs and stealing seven bases off Arrieta and catcher Miguel Montero. Arrieta’s control vanished, walking six batters and throwing a wild pitch. The defense collapsed, with second baseman Tommy La Stella leading Anthony Rizzo off first base with one throw and Montero chucking another ball into left field. Scherzer had as many hits (two) and RBI (one) as the entire Cubs lineup.
“I can pitch at his level,” Arrieta said. “I just haven’t done it consistently. He’s been very good, obviously, throughout his career. It’s been up and down. I’ve had a couple good ones, a bad one, a couple good ones, a bad one, so I would obviously like to be more consistent throughout. I just haven’t been able to do that the way that I would like.
“I’ll beat myself up tonight and put in some work and be better next time out. That’s kind of the philosophy, regardless of the situation or the results. Just try and learn as best I can and come out and do better next time.”
Halfway through his platform season, Arrieta is 7-6 with a 4.67 ERA after giving up six runs (five earned) and losing this marquee matchup against Scherzer and the first-place Nationals (46-31).
“Not where I want to be, obviously,” Arrieta said, “but I’ll try and move forward and just be better.”
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The Cubs (39-38) felt the whiplash effect from Scherzer’s violent delivery, the perfect game gone when he drilled leadoff guy Rizzo with a 95-mph fastball and the no-hitter over in the first inning when Kris Bryant knocked an RBI triple off the out-of-town scoreboard in right-center field.
None of it rattled Scherzer (9-5, 2.06 ERA), who gave up one more hit and zero walks across six innings. This is the third-fastest pitcher in major-league history to reach 2,000 strikeouts, a favorite to win his third Cy Young Award this year and the Game 1 starter the Cubs would face if they make it back to Washington for a first-round playoff series.
“It starts with his delivery and deception,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I think there’s a lot of intimidation, based on how he just delivers the baseball and the angle that he throws from, the ability to ride a fastball. I think the big thing, too, is the changeup has gotten devastatingly good.
“He’s an uncomfortable at-bat, just based on the way he winds up and throws the baseball. And then the stuff just moves so darn much. It’s a unique combination of factors that he has. He’s so strong and he pitches so deeply into games — and he does it consistently well for years. He’s just a different animal.”
That makes the Max comparison so untenable for Arrieta, who lost to Scherzer and the Detroit Tigers during his final start for the Baltimore Orioles on June 17, 2013. Arrieta immediately got shipped down to Triple-A Norfolk and traded to the Cubs 15 days later in a deal that would change baseball history forever.
Boras is right when he calls that the defining struggle of Arrieta’s career and says it took “World Series cojones” to handle that pressure. But just like Arrieta’s contract year, the Cubs are now in the great unknown.
Can you get back to that Scherzer level?
“No question about it,” Arrieta said. “Just nothing really went my way — or our team’s way — tonight.”