PITTSBURGH — Jake Arrieta felt so locked in, so prepared for the biggest start of his life that he trolled the Pittsburgh Pirates on Twitter, telling their fans that the blackout atmosphere at PNC Park wouldn’t matter.
The Cubs will never forget that epic performance during last year’s National League wild-card game, how Arrieta walked the walk in a complete-game shutout. His young son, Cooper, even helped pour champagne into his mouth during that wild postgame celebration, creating another memorable snapshot for a team with attitude.
Judging by the F-bombs dropped during Monday’s 7-2 win over the Pirates, the Cubs could be in for more fireworks. Even during the first week of May while the Penguins are still alive in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Arrieta’s starts have already become must-see TV, and the Pirates will get another up-close look on Tuesday night at this beautiful waterfront ballpark.
“Their fans are good,” Arrieta said. “They’re passionate about their team and their guys, so it’s something that I enjoy. I don’t expect them to be my biggest fan — or a fan of me at all — but that’s the nature of fans and the fans that really support their team.
“That’s the whole point of social media — to interact. Sometimes it’s well received. Sometimes it’s not. But that was the intention there — to fire people up — and I think that’s exactly what I did.”
Within the pandemonium of that wild-card game, the Cubs and Pirates cleared their benches after reliever Tony Watson’s first pitch to Arrieta drilled him with two outs in the seventh inning. Pittsburgh’s Sean Rodriguez got ejected, flipped out and started boxing with a Gatorade cooler in the dugout. Arrieta responded coolly by stealing second base.
Arrieta looked a little drained during the next two rounds of the playoffs, beating the St. Louis Cardinals (while seeming to lose some of his air of invincibility) before the New York Mets swept the Cubs out of the NLCS.
There hasn’t been any sort of hangover for Arrieta, the first NL Pitcher of the Month for three consecutive months after a dominant April that saw him go 5-0 with a no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds and only two runs allowed across 36 innings. As manager Joe Maddon likes to say, the reigning Cy Young Award winner is embracing the target.
“When you’re at the top of your game, when you’re one of the teams to beat, it’s just something that comes with the territory,” Arrieta said.
Arrieta’s meticulous routine and laser focus mean he doesn’t experience a flood of special memories as soon as he sees the bridges, the black and gold and the Pittsburgh skyline. Or at least he won’t admit that now.
“Well, when you bring it up, yeah,” Arrieta said. “That was a neat experience, something that was huge for us as a team and for the organization. But it was short-lived.
“We moved on and had to play the Cardinals and the Mets, and our season was cut a little bit short. But we’re in a better spot now this early in the season. We like where we are.”
That would be in first place in the Central, with a four-game lead over the Pirates and the best record in baseball (18-6) and no interest in dealing with the wild card’s short fuse.
“When you play 162, and then you have to fight it out in one game to move on or go home, it’s a situation that nobody really wants to be in,” Arrieta said. “The goal is obviously to win the division. And getting off to a hot start is the way you go about doing that. We’re where we intended to be at this point in the season.”