NEW YORK – That aura of invincibility around Jake Arrieta should be gone now, the Cubs no longer feeling quite so unbeatable. The New York Mets ended that fantasy, leaving this dream season only two losses away from being over.
The Cubs quietly left Citi Field after Sunday night’s 4-1 loss, down 0-2 in a best-of-seven National League Championship Series that began with great expectations and now shifts to Wrigley Field with the Mets looking like the team of destiny.
The Mets ambushed Arrieta in the first inning. Any momentum the Cubs hoped to create simply vanished when David Wright lifted an RBI double over the head of Dexter Fowler and onto the warning track in center field. That 1-0 deficit felt even bigger with the temperature dropping to 45 degrees and Noah Syndergaard throwing 99-mph heat.
The crowd of 44,502 then erupted when red-hot Daniel Murphy reached down and launched Arrieta’s curveball out toward the right-field seats. The ball stayed just inside the orange foul pole, a two-run shot giving Murphy five postseason homers this October.
"There's not (nearly the same) margin for error (in the playoffs)," Arrieta said. “But at the end of the day, it’s hard to second-guess if the ball’s down a little bit or in a little bit more. Those are the spots you’re trying to locate. Sometimes, they just get to you.”
Arrieta said he felt fine physically, but he could be hitting the wall here, piling up almost 248 innings, or 92 more than he threw in the majors last season. At a certain point, it might not matter how well you eat or how hard you train or how much you want to be the best.
“I don’t want to say he’s tired, because he’s in really good shape,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “But he’s a human. He can get tired as well. I don’t think he ever threw this many innings in his life.
“I don’t want to make up any excuses, because I don’t know what he feels like. But that could be (the) case.”
By the third inning, the Cubs had lefty Travis Wood warming up in the bullpen, which would have been unthinkable while Arrieta put together arguably the greatest second half by a pitcher in major-league history.
Between August, September, early October and that complete-game shutout of the Pittsburgh Pirates in an emotionally draining wild-card victory, Arrieta had allowed four earned runs combined.
Arrieta noticed he had trouble ratcheting up his velocity this time and worked in more changeups, allowing four runs in five innings on a night where the Cubs needed something closer to a perfect game.
“I know he’s been huge for us and we kind of set the bar really high,” Montero said. “But he’s a baseball player, man. It’s gonna happen.”
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The St. Louis Cardinals already made Arrieta work in the divisional round, manufacturing four runs in 5.2 innings while the Cubs bailed out the pitcher who might have been their MVP.
Arrieta covered for his teammates, fronting the rotation, taking pressure off a young lineup and saving the bullpen for a 97-win contender no one saw coming this year. The Cubs hadn’t lost a game Arrieta started since Cole Hamels threw a no-hitter for the Philadelphia Phillies on July 25 at Wrigley Field. Arrieta’s workload could finally be catching up to the Cubs now.
“I can’t deny that it might be,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I don’t know that. If you ask him, he’ll tell you no. (If) that (radar) gun was correct on the field, he might have been down a mile an hour or two.
“When that happens…the commitment to the breaking ball is not as definite from the hitter’s perspective, because they’re able to see everything better.
“He was not laboring to throw the ball. (It just) wasn’t as crisp as it had been, that’s all.”
This doesn’t mean Arrieta can’t get his mojo back or shouldn’t be next year’s Opening Day starter or won’t someday land a nine-figure contract. But he might have thrown his final pitch in 2015, no guarantees the Cubs come back to New York for a Game 6.
“We’ve got work to do,” Arrieta said. “The good thing is we go home, play three games in Wrigley Field and (we’ll) come out ready to go.”