PITTSBURGH – For all the buildup to this start, the memories of last year’s National League wild-card showdown, the benches-clearing frenzy, the champagne-soaked celebration in the visiting clubhouse and the F-bombs Cubs manager Joe Maddon dropped on the Pittsburgh Pirates the night before, this still felt like another Tuesday in early May, Game 25 of 162.
That’s the calming effect of Jake Arrieta, the new-age athlete with killer stuff and off-the-charts confidence. The Cy Young Award winner is on such a dominant run that there are times where it feels like the only real drama revolves around whether or not he will throw a no-hitter.
That didn’t happen at PNC Park, and anyone hoping for more fireworks between these two teams would have to settle for Arrieta slicing through Pittsburgh’s lineup with surgical precision. After walking the first two Pirates he faced, Arrieta allowed only two singles across seven scoreless innings before the Cubs could pull the plug at 99 pitches with a six-run lead.
“There’s going to be emotion in this division with teams like the Pirates all year,” Arrieta said after a 7-1 victory. “We’re trying to accomplish the same goals. We know there are a couple teams standing in our way. That’s just kind of the heat of the battle (where) you’ve got a couple really good ballclubs trying to compete for a spot at the top of the division.”
The Cubs (19-6) now have a five-game lead in the Central and will be going for the sweep on Wednesday afternoon with Jon Lester on the mound. Arrieta won’t admit he has a psychological edge over the Pirates – and the Cubs can’t come out and say they’re in their heads – but it sort of looks that way.
Combine Tuesday night, the complete-game wild-card shutout and five regular-season starts last year and here’s what Arrieta’s line looks like against the Pirates: Three earned runs allowed in 52 innings with 49 strikeouts against seven walks.
If Arrieta looked out of sync to begin the game – walking John Jaso and Andrew McCutchen on 10 pitches combined – he didn’t allow it to snowball into the big inning that used to haunt him during his struggles with the Baltimore Orioles.
Arrieta recognized early that has sinker had a ton of movement on it, adjusted his mechanics accordingly and started pounding the Pirates with four-seam fastballs. He took some speed off his slider, trying to create enough of a differential against a good fastball-hitting team. He got 12 groundball outs, taking advantage of Javier Baez and the spectacular defense at third base.
Arrieta (6-0, 0.84 ERA) is the first Cub to win his first six starts to a season since 1908, when Mordecai Brown won each of his first 11 starts to begin that championship run. The Cubs have now won Arrieta’s last 19 regular-season starts. Arrieta also broke Rick Sutcliffe’s 16-game winning streak spanning the 1984-85 seasons. It only took a Cole Hamels no-hitter for the Philadelphia Phillies to beat Arrieta on July 25, 2015.
Arrieta went on Twitter and told Pittsburgh fans he wanted it loud last October, but even the booing from a crowd of 22,195 feels halfhearted when there’s no suspense.
“It’s expected,” said Arrieta, who responded in the second inning with a bases-loaded RBI single. “It’s a good fan base kind of recognizing the recent past and trying to amp the home club up and swing the momentum in their favor.
“It’s not frowned upon from my part. Baseball fans – especially the diehard fans that stick up for their team – that’s what you want to see. Coming here and playing these guys in this park is always a good time.”