NEW YORK – Whether or not Jake Arrieta still has that same aura of invincibility, the Cubs believe their Cy Young Award candidate can pitch into November.
Setting the standard at no-hitter/complete-game shutout meant it felt like a surprise when the “Arrieta dominates St. Louis Cardinals” story didn’t write itself in the divisional round.
The Cubs still beat baseball’s best team in the regular season, even on an off night for Arrieta, who saw his streak of 21 straight quality starts end after allowing four runs in 5.2 innings. He simply didn’t have the same sharpness (two walks) or finish to his pitches (one hit batter), reminding everyone that he’s still human.
Now Arrieta gets the New York Mets on Sunday night at Citi Field in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series, with the Cubs already down 1-0 in this best-of-seven matchup and facing a team that just beat Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, eliminating the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“He’s not going to be perfect every time,” manager Joe Maddon said. “But I like the idea that he’s got a little extra rest going into this start. I’m anticipating a lot of what we’ve seen the last couple months.”
That would be arguably the greatest second half for any pitcher in major-league history, putting up an 0.75 ERA after the All-Star break. The Cubs still haven’t lost a game Arrieta started since July 25, when it took Cole Hamels throwing a no-hitter for the Philadelphia Phillies at Wrigley Field.
But Arrieta only has so many bullets left in his right arm, nearing 244 innings this year, or 87 more than he threw last season in the big leagues after a shoulder injury wiped out his April.
“We intend to play in October every year,” Arrieta said. “That’s something that I just take into consideration throughout the training process, trying to prepare your body as best as possible. (That’s) shoulder care, keeping everything as injury-resistant as possible.
“Obviously, there are certain things you can’t control, but physically my body’s great. I feel like there’s still some work for me to be done. And I don’t think I’ve gotten to the end of my leash yet.”
The Cubs are certainly aware of all this and no one has any definitive answers, because pitching healthcare is a next frontier for the industry. Arrieta is also a workout freak coming into his own with an acute understanding of his own pitching mechanics and mind/body dynamics.
“He’s as in-shape as anybody that’s ever played this game,” Maddon said. “Now, of course, guys get hurt even though they’re in good shape. I understand that. (But also) the fact that (he’s almost) 30 years of age is different than if he was 23, 24 making this kind of a jump in number of innings pitched and number of pitches thrown. I’d probably be more concerned if he was 23 or 24, to be honest.”
Arrieta is also a top-10 pitcher in terms of pitches thrown per inning, averaging 15 during this breakout season and showing an ability to think through at-bats on his feet.
“That’s pretty darned good,” Maddon said. “So maybe he’s thrown a lot of innings, but a lot of non-stressful innings, which I do think matters.
“I hate when the pitcher has to work early in the inning to get his outs. That really bums me out. Normally, he’s not going to be pitching deep into that game. But for the most part, he hasn’t really struggled to get outs early in the game, and that has led him to pitching more deep in the game, and you’re seeing all these extra innings piling up.
“This guy’s really in great shape. He takes care of himself, repeats his delivery. He’s pitch-efficient. Those are the kind of things that I want to believe are going to permit him to be this guy this year – and in the future – without any kind of negative impact.”
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For Arrieta, the biggest challenge might be making sure his heart rate doesn’t start soaring eight hours before first pitch in front of a raucous New York crowd and a Cubs team that will be playing with a sense of urgency.
“The physical toll really hasn’t bothered me at all,” Arrieta said. “But I think that the mental side of it and all the energy you burn leading up to the game does have a little bit of effect. But having a couple of these under my belt now, I’m pretty confident going in that I’ll be able to handle that pretty well.”