Jake Arrieta rounding into form as rejuvenated Cubs bury Cardinals

Jake Arrieta rounding into form as rejuvenated Cubs bury Cardinals

Miguel Montero may well have been speaking for all Cubs fans when he said he was excited after Jake Arrieta's outing.

The reigning National League Cy Young winner is in the race for the prestigious award again this season, but he's gone through some ups and downs, battling inconsistency all year.

Yet in Friday's 5-0 win over the St. Louis Cardinals in front of 40,791 fans at Wrigley Field, Arrieta flashed his potential, again showing what it looks like when he has everything clicking.

Arrieta struck out the side in the first inning, setting the tone for a 10-strikeout performance over seven shutout innings, allowing only five singles and a walk.

"It looked really familiar, the way they were taking some pitches, the strikeout performance," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.

Familar to last season, when Arrieta went on a superhuman run that topped anything anybody's ever seen before?

"He's not 100 percent there yet," Maddon said, "but definitely moving in the correct direction. That's a wonderful moment to build off of for him. 

"I'm absolutely certain that his confidence has to be peaked a little bit right there. That was more reminscient of what we saw last year."

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All summer long, everybody's been asking how Arrieta gets back to his dominant level. 

And all summer long, Maddon has maintained Arrieta is getting there, while the veteran starter has struggled to find his command and feel.

Will we look back at Friday as the turning point?

"We've been hyper-critical of him all year based on what he had done last year," Maddon said. "But to his credit, I think he's handled that really well, the criticism. He can just easily say, 'Look at my numbers, what's wrong with that?'

"But he knows theres another level of his pitching ability, so give the guy credit for continually attempting to work it out and make it even better and really holding himself to that higher standard."

Arrieta believed he had something of an revelation during Friday's outing, realizing he can dial it back and still get plenty of outs without going maximum effort all the time.

"I think the big thing for me is controlling my effort," Arrieta said. "When I'm able to do that, my stuff speaks for itself. Sometimes the competitiveness, the stubbornness gets in the way, but once I push that aside, stuff works pretty well."

Montero actually believes it's not the "effort" that is the key with Arrieta.

"I don't think he knew how to explain that," Montero said. "I don't believe he backed down or anything. I just believe he was letting the ball go rather than be pinpiont, rather than be nibbling, rather than make perfect pitches.

"You can see his fastball velocity picked up today than the past. And that was my main goal. I told him, 'I don't want you to be throwing 91 on the edges. I want you to be throwing 94, 95. Let it go.' Because I've had experience before with pitchers where they've been hit a few times and they just try to start nibbling. 

"You just gotta stay strong, stay positive, make pitches. We create bad habits, slowing your arm down just to be perfect. And then when you make a mistake, you get hit. My point is, if you're gonna make a mistake, just make a mistake letting it all out.

"And he did that today. There were pitches that he threw middle-middle that they couldn't do anything with because he was pitching with conviction behind it and he was letting the ball go. And when he does that, he executes a lot more pitches."

Javier Báez joins Cubs All-Decade Team at second base, where El Mago was born

Javier Báez joins Cubs All-Decade Team at second base, where El Mago was born

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

There may not be a player in baseball more exciting to watch than Javier Báez.

Whether at the plate, in the field or on the bases, Báez is a human highlight real. He’s one of the most powerful hitters in baseball; he has a cannon for an arm, exemplary defensive range and is a tagging maestro. He’s a dynamic baserunner who uses his elite baseball instincts to go station-to-station while magically avoiding tags along the way.

Yeah, there’s a reason Báez is known as “El Mago.” It’s not a matter of if he’ll make an incredible play each game, but a matter of when. Things come easy for the 27-year-old full of flair who makes the most difficult plays seem routine.

Báez is a career .270/.310/.484 hitter who’s hit 110 home runs in parts of six big-league seasons. One of those long balls came in his big-league debut (Aug. 5, 2014), a go-ahead blast against the Rockies in the 12th inning. The legend of El Mago was born.

Báez is the Cubs starting shortstop, though that hasn’t always been the case. Starlin Castro was the starter in 2014; Addison Russell claimed the title from Castro in the second half of 2015, holding it down until late in the 2018 season. Russell hit the injured list that August as the Cubs simultaneously acquired Daniel Murphy in an attempt to jump-start the offense.

By the time Russell returned, Báez was a clear-cut NL MVP candidate. The latter still bounced around the infield from time-to-time, but with Murphy entrenched at second, shortstop became Báez’s primary position. He’s been the starter ever since.

Báez has played 2,646 2/3 career innings at shortstop compared to 1,856 at second base (and 629 1/3 at third). He’s exclusively a shortstop these days, but the El Mago second base days aren’t forgotten.

Báez was the co-recipient of the 2016 NLCS MVP award (along with Jon Lester) and has started back-to-back All-Star Games (2018 at second, 2019 at shortstop). He was the runner-up for the 2018 NL MVP award, posting career highs across the board: .290/.326/.554, 34 homers, 111 RBIs, 129 OPS+.

And yet, it feels like Báez is only getting started. Nevertheless, his career to date has more than earned him a spot on our Cubs All-Decade Team at second base. With that, we'll leave you with this:

Anthony Rizzo joins Cubs All-Decade Team behind efforts on and off field

Anthony Rizzo joins Cubs All-Decade Team behind efforts on and off field

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

You saw this one coming, right?

As the Cubs’ longest tenure player, Anthony Rizzo was a shoo-in for this group. He hasn’t relinquished his starting first baseman job since making his Cubs debut in June 2012. The guy’s longevity alone is impressive.

But besides that, Rizzo has been a model of consistency during his time on the North Side. Since 2012, he’s hit 217 home runs (averaging 27 per season) and hit 32 three times from 2014-17. The lone exception? 2015, when he hit 31. So close…

As a Cub, Rizzo is a .277/.376/.496 hitter with a 132 OPS+. He produces at a high clip each season, whether he’s hitting third, cleanup or leadoff, all while simultaneously playing stellar defense. The 30-year-old is a three-time Gold Glove Award winner (2016, 2018-19).

Rizzo is the guy who comes up huge in key moments but will be there to address the media after tough losses. He’s the de facto captain of the Cubs, the guy who suffered a nasty ankle sprain in September that could have ended his regular season. Instead, he returned four days later for a key series against the rival Cardinals, as the Cubs were fighting to keep their October dreams alive.

When he’s not leading his team on the field, Rizzo is giving back to the community off of it. He’s one of the most charitable athletes in the world and recently raised $1.3 million for children’s cancer research at his “8th annual Walk-off for Cancer” in his home state of Florida.

Rizzo was the first building block of the Cubs core which snapped their infamous 108-year championship drought, but he’ll be remembered for more than that. He’s a leader on and off the field, the clear choice for starting first baseman on our Cubs All-Decade Team.

Also considered: Derrek Lee, Bryan LaHair