For the nostalgic crowd, Jake Arrieta’s bizarre sixth inning was described by manager Joe Maddon as a throwback to the days of Sudden Sam McDowell, the longtime Cleveland Indians flamethrower who routinely led the league in strikeouts and walks. But for the bigger picture of the National League Central, it was another instance of the Cubs — who won, 6-0, in front of 41,547 at Wrigley Field Friday afternoon — asserting their dominance over a Pittsburgh Pirates team that’s made the playoffs in each of the last three seasons.
Arrieta, who cruised through his first five innings, walked the bases loaded with one out in the sixth in a strange spate of wildness. He then fell behind David Freese 3-0, and it looked like the fuse was lit for an explosive Pirates inning. Instead, Arrieta fought back to strike out the Pittsburgh third baseman for the second out.
Wrigley Field erupted in cheers, but Matt Joyce — the Pirates left fielder with a hulking 1.040 OPS — was still in the way. Arrieta pitched himself into a 3-1 count, but came back with a strike to produce a full count, then zipped a sinker over the inner third for strike three.
“It was a throwback moment,” Maddon said. “… Jake made the pitches he had to. Pure and simple. That’s the game-changer.”
That five-batter stretch was the narrow story from the Cubs’ win Friday, but the wider view shows a Cubs team consistently beating a Pittsburgh side that’s lost 15 of its last 20 games and seven of its last eight. The Cubs are 6-1 against the Pirates in 2016.
The sixth inning was the Pirates’ chance to break things open for a team that hasn’t scored more than four runs in over a week and last had what could be considered an offensive outburst June 4. But even with Arrieta pushing himself to the brink of destruction, the Pirates couldn’t flip the switch against a guy who’s dominated them ever since coming to Chicago in July of 2013.
“Nothing like a little self-inflicted drama to get the fans going,” Arrieta said. “Really just lost feel there. But those are things that can happen. … Just a temporary lapse in staying aggressive and keeping things on the same track as they were most of the game.”
After the game, left fielder Matt Szczur — who ripped a two-run home run in the first inning that buoyed things early on — mentioned Arrieta’s success pitching with the bases loaded as a reason as to why he wasn’t too worried when the ace right-hander loaded the bases on walks. But even the mention of it doesn’t do the numbers justice: Since 2014, opposing batters have one hit in 27 plate appearances against Arrieta with the bases loaded.
Another reason for comfort could’ve been Arrieta’s success against the Pirates during his ascendence from struggling pitching prospect to becoming the 2015 NL Cy Young winner. Arrieta has now started nine games against the Pirates — including the Wild Card game last year — since 2014 and the most earned runs he’s allowed in any of those starts has been two (in that game, coming May 14 of this year, he also struck out 11).
When Arrieta loaded the bases, the Cubs only had a two-run lead, but a deluge of Pirates mistakes after that frame saw four more runs add to the total. Joyce nonchalantly threw to third base on Albert Almora’s sixth-inning RBI double, which ultimately led to Addison Russell drawing an impressive 13-pitch bases-loaded walk. Right fielder Gregory Polanco curled away from a fly ball center fielder Andrew McCutchen lost in the sun in the seventh, which precipitated another Cubs run.
There’s still plenty of games left to be played over the course of the summer, but in dispatching the Pirates — who fell below .500 — Friday, the Cubs are now 13 games better than their Pennsylvania-based NL Central opponent. The caveat is that it’s early, but what Arrieta did in the sixth inning was another signal that the Cubs have the Pirates’ number this season.
“Obviously you take a look at it sometimes but there’s still a long way to go, so you can’t really start focusing on that right now,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “You gotta keep winning as many games (as you can) right now.”