ST. LOUIS — Whatever happens from here, Jake Arrieta will always be remembered as a Cub, for the way he lifted the entire franchise during his Cy Young Award season, silenced the Pittsburgh Pirates in that 2015 wild-card showdown and beat the Cleveland Indians twice in last year's World Series.
But Arrieta certainly isn't turning this into a David Ross-style farewell tour or a Boras Corp. countdown to free agency, not when the Cubs have enough blue-chip talent, big-market resources and playoff experience to become the first team to defend a World Series title since the three-peat New York Yankees (1998, 1999, 2000).
As Arrieta struck out five of the first seven St. Louis Cardinals he faced on Tuesday night, he gave manager Joe Maddon flashbacks to when he dominated like Bob Gibson and became must-see TV for the no-hitter possibilities. What might be Arrieta's final season in a Cubs uniform began with a sharp 2-1 victory in front of another sellout crowd at Busch Stadium.
"Jake really looked good from the side," Maddon said. "The ball was moving a lot. It was very reminiscent of a couple years ago, his strike-throwing and the way the hitters reacted to the pitch."
Getting off to a good start is important for a Cubs team that will have to fend off the Cardinals and wants to be well-rested and peaking by October — as well as a pitcher super-agent Scott Boras has compared to $210 million Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer.
"It's not a distraction at all," Arrieta said. "The only thing I'm focused on is the other 24 guys in this clubhouse and the handful of other guys that will be a part of us at some point throughout the season. We got guys like Ian Happ who are waiting in the wings and will probably be a big part of our season this year.
"My contract is an ancillary part of just the game of baseball. It's part of the business side of it. But my focus is just to be here for the guys in the clubhouse and help us win another championship."
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Arrieta retired nine Cardinals in a row and 12 of the first 13 batters he faced before minimizing the damage in the fifth inning. That's when Stephen Piscotty got hit three different times — with an Arrieta pitch, while stealing second base and after hustling on a chopper to the right side of the infield. Arrieta didn't stop the ball. Javier Baez bobbled it and then fired toward home plate, drilling Piscotty's helmet and knocking him out of the game.
The Cubs clapped for Piscotty, who had been facedown in the dirt before walking off the field, the day after the Cardinals announced his six-year, $33.5 million contract extension. Arrieta only allowed that unearned run across six innings before handing the game over to a bullpen built for October. Koji Uehara, Pedro Strop and Wade Davis combined to get the final nine outs as the Cubs got even with the Cardinals after a one-run Opening Night loss that showed this rivalry still has some juice.
Arrieta's transformation into an ace helped swing the balance of power in the National League Central. It's only Game 2, but Arrieta could already feel flashes of 2015 against a strong St. Louis lineup.
"It started out that way, really crisp with everything," Arrieta said. "The sinker was moving a lot, the command of breaking balls was pretty on point. It got a little sloppy in the fifth and sixth. I got ahead of myself. The effort level was too much. I started rotating laterally a little too much versus trying to stay on top of the ball.
"But that's OK. Those are things that I'll continue to work through and try and get those things under control as I progress throughout the season.
"For the first one, it was really good."