PITTSBURGH — Jake Arrieta is obsessed with pushing himself and finding different ways to improve, but he hasn’t been fixated on 20 wins the way the media has zeroed in on that magic number.
Arrieta says he thinks about pitching in October every day. That will remain his focus — not 20 wins or a Cy Young Award or his next contract — until he goes home to Austin, Texas, this winter and looks back on an unbelievable season.
The Cubs have bigger things in mind, cutting their playoff magic number to 10 with a 3-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates that took 12 innings on Wednesday night at PNC Park.
“We’re going to be really tough (to beat),” Arrieta said. “We have a lineup that consists of a lot of young players who are playing maybe beyond their years, which is something that I don’t think surprises a lot of us here.
“These guys can really play. And learning how to grow up in this atmosphere is something that’s only going to accelerate their careers.”
Arrieta has already taken the huge leap forward, notching 19 wins, passing the 200-innings mark for the first time and dazzling a national-television audience with that no-hitter at Dodger Stadium.
Arrieta threw 117 pitches and accounted for eight innings, allowing only two runs (one earned) and finishing with five strikeouts against one walk in a no-decision that again showed why the Cubs will be a dangerous playoff opponent.
“It’s unbelievable how that guy handles those kind of games,” Starlin Castro said. “If we score a run, with that guy on the mound, we got a lot of confidence and a lot of trust that we can win that night.”
Arrieta has been remarkably consistent throughout the season — 17 straight quality starts now — and particularly good against the Pirates (87-58). He has given up only three earned runs across 29 innings to the team he will likely face in the National League’s wild-card game on Oct. 7.
“I feel comfortable against anybody,” Arrieta said. “The team that I’m facing on any given day isn’t really something I put a lot of thought and effort into. I just try and scout and do my homework as well as I can. And then kind of go from there.
“Three games in the series thus far, three one-run games. (The Pirates) play very sound, fundamental baseball. They’ve got guys at the top of the order who can manufacture things (and guys who can) drive them in. They’re very balanced. They’ve got a lot of weapons. And we play them tough.”
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Arrieta (1.96) is trying to become the first qualifying Cubs pitcher to finish with a sub-2.00 ERA since Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1920. That kind of sustained dominance should prevent the kind of epic collapse it would take for this team to miss the playoffs.
But knowing the stakes, Arrieta couldn’t believe his throwing error with two outs in the sixth inning (near the end of a season where we’ve devoted so much bandwidth, airtime and newspaper ink to Jon Lester’s yips).
Arrieta fielded the ball Starling Marte hit back to the pitcher’s mound, sort of hopped twice and lobbed a high throw to first base that bounced off the top of Anthony Rizzo’s glove. Marte didn’t seem to be running all that hard down the line, quickly accelerated and pushed Rizzo as he turned away from the base. Gregory Polanco kept running and scored an unearned run before Marte got thrown out at second.
“I made an inexcusable mental mistake (that) could have ended up potentially costing us the game,” Arrieta said. “That’s my one takeaway.
“Even though we won the game, that’s going to bother me for awhile. That’s just kind of personally the way I am. Luckily, we were able to pull it out and come out on top. I’ll just use that for future reference and not let it happen again.”
The Cubs got contributions from all over, Kris Bryant’s RBI double off the left-field wall followed by Castro driving in another run with a bunt in the sixth inning. There was Javier Baez throwing out a runner at the plate in the eighth inning and a defense that turned four double plays. Pedro Strop and Fernando Rodney became the bridge to Hector Rondon, who threw two scoreless innings to earn the win.
The Cubs manufactured the winning run in the 12th inning with back-to-back singles from Chris Denorfia and Austin Jackson. Pinch-runner Quintin Berry scored on Rizzo’s sacrifice fly to left field, moving the Cubs to within three games of the Pirates for home-field advantage in the wild-card game.
The Pirates seem to be more concerned with catching the St. Louis Cardinals and closing their four-game gap within the division. But after watching Lester’s complete-game performance here on Tuesday night, the Cubs know they can do some damage.
“On the mound, we’re extremely confident,” Arrieta said. “Obviously, Lester is a proven ace who can handle the pressure and handle the big situations in October. We’re in a good spot.
“Lester and I and the other guys know what we have to do to extend our season.”