PITTSBURGH — Jake Arrieta had just thrown a no-hitter on national television when he walked into Dodger Stadium’s interview room wearing a gray striped onesie covered in moustaches.
Before beginning his press conference, Arrieta looked down at the open buttons and asked reporters: “Too much cleavage?”
The thing is, Arrieta had already bought his go-to pajamas while on a rehab assignment with Double-A Tennessee last year, long before Cubs manager Joe Maddon got hired, much less organized that dress-up stunt for the overnight flight home from Los Angeles.
“He definitely hears his own beat,” Maddon said.
No, Arrieta doesn’t seem at all stressed about the win-or-else National League wild-card game. Because in his mind, everything in his life has been leading up this moment, looking out from below his flat-brimmed hat and staring down the Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday night at PNC Park.
Arrieta has light-tower posture and the swagger of a Texas cowboy who grew up idolizing Nolan Ryan and his intimidating presence.
Arrieta has that mountain-man beard, those blue Birkenstock sandals he wears around the clubhouse and a fluency in organic food, animal proteins and the benefits of a plant-based diet.
Arrieta has the curiosity of a Silicon Valley engineer, searching out experts on Instagram and Twitter, studying kinetics and wanting to defy gravity.
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The physics of it all baffles hitters — up and down, in and out, fast and faster — as they try to figure out a 6-foot-4, 225-pound right-hander who can drop a curveball, changeup or that slider/cutter hybrid in a deceptive crossfire motion.
Arrieta finished the regular season with 20 quality starts in a row, going 16-1 with a 0.86 ERA and transforming the Cubs into a 97-win team.
“He’s unbelievable,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “You get guys on base all the time say they’ve never seen anything like it.”
To get a better feel for finishing his delivery, Arrieta likes to hang upside down from monkey bars. At a time when a $9 billion industry can only guess which pitchers might break down, Arrieta has ideas about flexibility and conditioning, cruising through a career-high 229 innings (or almost 72 more than last season).
“Our bodies try and fight gravity,” Arrieta said. “That’s kind of what I try and work against. I try and put my body in positions that allow me to counteract gravity — and strengthen my joints by putting my body in positions that are unfamiliar.”
Whether or not Arrieta needs to find a spot for a Cy Young Award, he already has plans for the empty lot next to his offseason home in Austin, Texas, where he envisions a ladder, a set of parallel bars and monkey bars.
“The set-up that I’m going to build is basically something similar to what you see at a playground,” Arrieta said. “I try and train very minimally. I use some kettlebells. I use some bands. But I’m trying to get my training back to a really primal level.
“I like to train in a way that I can move and effect my body as a whole rather than focusing on one specific area. I try and train to where I can tax my entire body by doing one movement.”
The pop-culture reference felt a little dated, but Maddon wasn’t far off when he compared Arrieta to a “male Jane Fonda.”
When Brandon Finnegan, who came out of the same Texas Christian University baseball program, wanted to know what it takes at this level, he contacted Arrieta.
Finnegan pitched in the College World Series and the World Series last year before the Kansas City Royals traded him to the Cincinnati Reds in the Johnny Cueto deal.
Arrieta responded by sending selfie videos of different positions from the Pilates machine he set up inside the Wrigley Field interview room/dungeon.
“He’s a workout freak,” Finnegan said.
That’s why super-agent Scott Boras looks ahead to the free-agent class after the 2017 season and compares Arrieta’s pitching odometer to another client — Max Scherzer — who got a seven-year, $210 million megadeal from the Washington Nationals last winter.
“You don’t have to tell Jake Arrieta what to do,” Boras said. “He’s looking for things to do to get better.”
What took so long? Arrieta couldn’t stick with the Baltimore Orioles, spending parts of the 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013 seasons on the Triple-A level.
There was friction between Dan Duquette’s front office and Buck Showalter’s dugout and a cookie-cutter pitching philosophy that didn’t vibe with Arrieta.
But listening to Arrieta entertain just about any question and speak in full paragraphs, it’s easy to see how he could overthink everything.
“It’s purely confidence,” said Dave Martinez, Maddon’s bench coach with the Cubs and Tampa Bay Rays. “I remember sitting with Joe and saying: ‘Man, this guy’s got electric stuff.’ We knew he had it. And now he’s just confident. Every time he goes out there, you can see it in his eyes and his face.”
Addison Russell had a great view of Arrieta’s no-hitter from his shortstop position on Aug. 30 at Dodger Stadium, watching a pitcher totally dominate a $300 million team, striking out the side in the ninth inning.
“I check out the signs to see what he’s going to throw, so I can anticipate where the batter might hit it,” Russell said. “And he threw it there just about every single time.”
That Scott Feldman deal in the middle of the 2013 season will go down as a franchise-altering trade. But Arrieta needed the fresh start. It’s hard to see this happening at Camden Yards or without the influence of pitching coach Chris Bosio and Theo Epstein’s front office.
“It’s exhilarating to watch him out there pitching at such a high level knowing how hard he worked to get to this point,” Epstein said. “He always had a lot of natural ability. He’s not a guy who just woke up and was a 20-game (winner) in the major leagues.
“He really had to go through some tough times and work at his craft. He wakes up every day trying to figure out how to get better.
“That’s the kind of mindset we want in this organization.”
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If Arrieta has experienced a mind/body breakthrough, he has also achieved a work/family balance at the age of 29.
Arrieta’s wife, Brittany, had grown up as an elite-level gymnast in Texas, training with Nastia Liukin, an Olympic champion, and understanding what it takes to thrive in a competitive environment.
For Brittany, Arrieta has a “B” tattooed onto his ring finger. He also has “Coop” tattooed onto his left wrist, a tribute to his four-year-old son, Cooper. Next up this offseason is something for Palmer, their daughter who will turn two on New Year’s Eve.
But first Arrieta plans to conquer the playoffs. He’s no longer the kid who would get rattled in the American League East, letting the game spin out of control with one big inning. He’s the one in total control now.
“It’s a nervous excitement,” Arrieta said. “It’s not anxiety. This is why I’ve prepared as hard and as rigorous as I have for the past however many years for this game. This is one of the moments that you think about when you’re training in the offseason in early December. You think about pitching in games like this.
“I’ve already processed it. I’ve already visualized the scenarios. So I feel like anything that’s thrown at me tomorrow — or really in any game — I’m ready to handle.
“This has been a long time coming to this moment. I’ve been waiting for it for a number of years. And I’m ready.”