The no-hitter drama lasted about two minutes on Thursday afternoon at Wrigley Field. Milwaukee Brewers leadoff guy Jonathan Villar reached out and made contact with Jake Arrieta’s fifth pitch, knocking that 95-mph two-seam fastball into shallow left field for a soft broken-bat single. The Cubs wouldn’t have any Johnny Vander Meer flashbacks.
Arrieta wanted to jam Villar inside but missed his spot with a pitch that tailed down and away – and he still shattered the bat into pieces. As veteran catcher David Ross had to remind reporters in the clubhouse after a 7-2 win: “He is human.”
And not some cyborg that had to be rewired and rebooted after that franchise-altering trade with the Baltimore Orioles in the middle of the 2013 season.
What a week for Arrieta after no-hitting the Cincinnati Reds. Speaking in full paragraphs at his locker for almost 15 minutes on Tuesday, he had already answered and dismissed the questions about performance-enhancing drugs and his metamorphosis into one of the game’s best pitchers.
The clubhouse TVs turned to ESPN and MLB Network on mute showed the talking heads running with that chemistry debate for the next two days. To be honest, on some level it felt like Arrieta didn’t mind attention and getting it off his chest.
Arrieta could be a repeat Cy Young Award winner, a Game 1 starter in the playoffs and the recipient of a seven-year megadeal worth somewhere north of $200 million. But so much can happen between now and the end of the 2017 season, which means the Cubs have to maximize this two-year window to win a World Series with Arrieta.
The front office and coaching staff obviously won’t root against a no-hitter, but that 16-0 victory at Great American Ball Park was exactly the kind of situation the Cubs outlined in spring training, how they didn’t need to ride Arrieta so hard and could keep him fresh for October after throwing almost 250 innings last year.
Arrieta – who gave up one run, three hits and four walks across five innings – saw the end of his consecutive quality-starts streak (24) and scoreless-innings run at Wrigley Field (52.2). That was the longest stretch since Hall of Famer Bob Gibson’s 26 quality starts across the 1967-68 seasons. Ray Herbert – who put together 54 straight scoreless innings at home for the 1962-63 White Sox – still holds the modern-era record.
This felt like a total mismatch, Arrieta (5-0, 1.00 ERA) vs. a rebuilding Milwaukee team (8-13) that is so much closer to the beginning of a five-year rebuilding plan than the end. So the Cubs pulled Arrieta for pinch-hitter Jorge Soler with a four-run lead and runners on the corners in the fifth inning, trying to play the long game.
“Under the circumstances, I thought that was plenty for him,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I saw 92 pitches. I saw Jake Arrieta. I saw the Cubs trying to win a World Series. I saw the next five years of his career. I know his kids really well. All that stuff mattered much more than breaking Gibson’s record right there.”
“In this position last year, I might have been a little more frustrated with that decision,” Arrieta said. “It’s a spot where you take everything into consideration – the extra off-days, the rainout last night, cold weather, extended pitch counts, a long first inning – it is the right way to go.
“Obviously, our most important ballgames are still ahead of us. From this point moving forward, we’re still lined up pretty well.”
Arrieta wasn’t perfect, but the Cubs have now won his last 18 regular-season starts. The PED references were Cubs fans booing admitted juicer Ryan Braun before each one of his at-bats, right up to the final out in the ninth inning of a game that lasted three hours and 45 minutes.
The Brewers made Arrieta throw 31 pitches in the first inning, trying to disrupt his rhythm with three stolen bases before he struck out Chris Carter and Kirk Nieuwenhuis swinging. That’s what the Cubs expect at this point – their ace never looking nervous or rattled.
Arrieta got ready for the biggest start of his life – last year’s National League wild-card game – by trolling Pittsburgh Pirates fans on Twitter and telling them the blackout atmosphere at PNC Park “doesn’t matter.” It got real quiet during that complete-game shutout.
Arrieta has become a fashion model, signing endorsement deals with SAXX underwear and the Mizzen+Main clothing line. He even says he finds the PED accusations to be “flattering.”
“I haven’t seen him change a bit,” said Maddon, who last year compared Arrieta to a male Jane Fonda. “He really handles those particular moments when he’s confronted really well, because he’s very matter of fact.
“He’s very self-confident. He knows who he is. So when he answers the questions, he can answer them in a genuine manner and feel really good about himself.
“Wouldn’t we all like to be like that? It’s a pretty good way to live. And I think he’s got it down. He takes care of everything about himself. So I’m all about Jake. We all are. We support everything he does and says.”
Which sometimes means telling Arrieta what he doesn’t want to hear, because if the Cubs keep up this best-in-baseball pace (16-5), then Jake will become a legend in Chicago.
“At the end of the day, I’m pretty realistic,” Arrieta said. “I understand that the guys on the other side are really good as well. Even on your best days, you’re going to give up runs. We’re going to make mistakes. That’s just part of this game. That’s why we get to play 162. That’s why we get 30 to 34 starts, because it all evens out in the end.”