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Why Jake Arrieta almost quit baseball — and what that means for Tommy La Stella

Why Jake Arrieta almost quit baseball — and what that means for Tommy La Stella

There were times Jake Arrieta felt like quitting baseball, wondering if this really was the best way to support his family as he bounced between the Baltimore Orioles and their Triple-A affiliate in Norfolk, Va.

It wasn’t just his dream anymore. Arrieta had to think about a wife (Brittany), a young son (Cooper) and a daughter (Palmer) on the way. He had a business background at Texas Christian University, an inquisitive, engaging personality and enough confidence and connections to launch his next act.

The year after being Baltimore’s Opening Day starter, Arrieta found himself back in Triple-A by late April 2013, the fourth season he spent time on that level.

“We were at a point where I had other things that I could segue into and establish a career elsewhere,” Arrieta said Tuesday, the one-year anniversary of his no-hitter at Dodger Stadium, where the Cubs popped champagne bottles and partied in their onesies, showing the full force of their personalities. “Not that I wanted that to happen, but I didn’t want to continue to go through the things we were going through and moving from place to place in the minor leagues at 25, 26 years old.

“Baseball is something that I’ve loved to do since I was a little kid, but it’s not everything. I had to reevaluate some things. I knew I could always pitch this way, but there were times where it seemed like maybe I wasn’t going to get to that point.

“It’s just part of life that we had to deal with.”

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That big-picture perspective should help Tommy La Stella once he returns to the Wrigley Field clubhouse — possibly as soon as this week when the rosters expand for September — and goes into damage-control mode.

Arrieta has remained in frequent contact with La Stella since the reserve infielder/left-handed pinch-hitter refused to report to Triple-A Iowa in late July, moved back to his home in New Jersey, told ESPN he would consider retirement if he couldn’t play for the big-league Cubs and finally ended his holdout in the middle of August.

“I really care about Tommy,” Arrieta said. “He’s ready to kind of explain to the team what he was going through, because there’s a lot of confusion, rightfully so. But I take the baseball aspect completely out of it and I look at it from just a human-being perspective. I can relate to him on a lot of different levels.

“I know that there were things that he was going through and dealing with (that) we may not agree with and understand.

“But we don’t have to. There are certain things that he’s needed to deal with — and he’s at the point now where he’s willing and able to convey the message to the guys in this clubhouse.

“He can help us win games, so he’s a guy that we definitely need in this clubhouse. He’s ready to address the team — (and) move past it and get back to being a part of the team.”

Arrieta’s late-blooming career is a testament to willpower and perseverance, taking advantage of that change-of-scenery trade to the Cubs in the middle of the 2013 season and evolving into the National League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner.

Even during a season where he has at times struggled to command his fastball and felt out of rhythm, Arrieta is still 16-5 with a 2.84 ERA for the best team in baseball, yet another sign of how much he has grown as a person and as a pitcher.

Going AWOL wasn’t the answer then — and it wasn’t a smart play for La Stella now — but at least Arrieta recognizes those anxieties and insecurities. Maybe that sense of leadership will help smooth over any awkwardness inside a laissez-faire clubhouse known for its late arrival times, loud music and Party Room.

“On a long drive — or when the game’s over, just sitting there thinking about where I see myself in the near future — it wasn’t there,” Arrieta said. “I wasn’t going to just continue to pitch in the minor leagues for another five or six years. If I wasn’t good enough to get the job done, I would move on to somewhere (else) where I was.

“There’s a lot out there other than baseball. But, obviously, this is ultimately where I wanted to be. It was just a point in life where there was some uncertainty there. And you address it, you deal with it and you move past it.”

Why Cubs say 'nothing's going to faze us now' after historic 12-3 start

Why Cubs say 'nothing's going to faze us now' after historic 12-3 start

Throughout his career, Jon Lester has called the typical baseball season a roller coaster.

“I think we’re on the Six Flags roller coaster right now,” the Cubs’ veteran pitcher said. “We’re not on the kiddie side of anything.”

Three-month shutdown. Deadly pandemic. Surgical masks. Empty stadiums. Every-other-day testing for COVID-19.

“That being said, I think everybody’s just glad to be doing it,” he said.

As strange as that sounds, maybe that explains it. Maybe the Cubs are just glad to be here.

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Anthony Rizzo, the most tenured player in the clubhouse, said that much in February — said how much he intended to enjoy every day of this season because the nine players left from the 2016 championship were on borrowed time as a group, likely to be ripped apart at the trade deadline with a poor start.

Whatever it is that has brought them to this point, get a load of the Cubs five months after the coronavirus pandemic shut down spring training.

After the Cardinals’ COVID-19 outbreak wiped out the Cubs’ series in St. Louis and sidelined them for four days, the Cubs responded by outscoring Cleveland 14-3 to sweep a two-game series — albeit, after that team put two of its best pitchers on the restricted list for violating safety protocols.

The Cubs return home with a 12-3 record that ties its best through 15 games since it went 13-2 in 1907 on the way to a World Series championship. (Of course, the other time it went 12-3 was 1970, when the rest of the season was not so good).

The biggest difference this year, of course, is that 15 games already represents one-fourth of the season, assuming Major League Baseball can pull off this nine-week, 30-team long shot.

So it would be like starting 32-8 in a 162-game season.

Or maybe not a lot different than starting 25-6 — which is what the Cubs did in 2016 on the way to 103 victories and a World Series championship that finished in the same place they just knocked around the best team they’ve played so far this season. (The Cubs were 11-4 through 15 games in 2016.)

“It’s kind of cool,” Lester said of the short season. “It’s kind of cool to have this pressure on you from Day 1. I think sometimes we can all get into the, 'It’s the first month; hey, we’ve got a long way to go.’

“Obviously, we can’t say that. I feel like guys are grinding a little bit more early on. I think it shows in our at-bats. I think it shows in our approach on the mound.”

As they open a 10-game homestand Thursday against the Brewers, the Cubs’ starting rotation is 11-3 with a 2.65 ERA. After a shaky first week, the bullpen has generally performed well. The fielding is among the best in baseball.

And the lineup just scored seven runs each of the last two nights against a pitching staff that hadn’t allowed more than four in a game — after an unexpected layoff.

“There have been so many things going on this whole year I think that nothing’s going to faze us now,” said Kyle Hendricks (3-1), who pitched six strong innings to win Wednesday.

Talk about a push-button operation for a first-year manager.

“Yeah, you haven’t sat in this seat,” manager David Ross said with a laugh when it was suggested he had nothing to complain about 15 games into the season.

“We’ve got good players. That’s what it is,” he said. “There’s nothing to complain about because the talent’s there. The character’s there. The commitment, the focus, the energy, the work — all those things that seem easy to bring every day; it’s not. It’s not easy. Especially in this environment we’re dealing with now.

“It’s all about the players, man.”

Maybe adding a designated hitter is a difference maker for a National League team that had the luxury of good developing and platoon hitters on its bench.

“I can’t really remember a time playing for this team where it was really like that, where 1 through 9 there was damage all through the order,” former MVP Kris Bryant said. “I think it shows in our record and the baseball that we’re playing right now, too.”

“It’s everything right now. Everything’s clicking.”

Maybe some of it’s the right new manager at the right time, like the front office has suggested? Maybe some of it’s the growth of Rizzo as a leader and tone-setter in the clubhouse, like Ross suggested?

Maybe it’s the kind of urgency and focus the front office talked about last year — but that a 60-game sprint through a COVID-19 minefield demands.

“If I had to compare the mindset this season, it’s been more of a playoff scenario,” Lester said, “where every day you show up you pay a little bit more attention to detail, a little bit more attention to that scouting report and what you’re trying to do.

“You don’t have that window to make a mistake. The big thing for us is energy, and I think when we [bring] that, when we show up with energy every day, you see a good product on the field, whether we win or lose.”

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Cubs quick takes: Cubs head home with 12-3 start after sweep in Cleveland

Cubs quick takes: Cubs head home with 12-3 start after sweep in Cleveland

Whether Zach Plesac's and Mike Clevinger's Mistake by the Lake deflated hot-starting Cleveland, the Cubs looked anything but deflated during a decisive two-game sweep of the team that looked like the best team on their schedule so far.

After Clevinger was scratched from Tuesday's start because he and Plesac violated COVID-19 protocols and left their hotel over the weekend, the Cubs scored seven runs in each game against a team that hadn't allowed more than four in a game until then.

"The guys are as locked in as I've ever seen," said Wednesday's winning pitcher, Kyle Hendricks, of a lineup that produced home runs by Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, and another two RBIs by Jason Heyward during the 7-2 win.

Heyward drove in five runs during the sweep, in which the Cubs outscored Cleveland 14-3.

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Quick takes from the victory that sends the Cubs home with the best record in the majors: 

Happy return

Starters Jon Lester and Hendricks pitched with a combined seven extra days of rest, but both were impressive in earning victories in the sweep.

"The starters keep doing their thing," manager David Ross said, adding of Hendricks' mix and location: "It's a clinic."

One night after Lester allowed one run in six innings, Hendricks (3-1) made his first start in Cleveland since Game 7 of the 2016 World Series and matched Lester’s performance.

Hendricks, the Cubs’ Opening Day starter, who struck out five without a walk, lowered his ERA to 3.08 through four starts.

The only run he allowed came after Cleveland successfully challenged what appeared to be a diving catch by Bryant in left field for the second out of the fifth. Instead, it was ruled a catch, loading the bases, and José Ramírez followed with a sacrifice fly.

"I thought I caught it," Bryant said. "Apparently, I didn't. Whatever."

Who needs the DH?

Not the Cubs, apparently.

Ross likes using his second, good-hitting catcher, Victor Caratini, as the designated hitter, when Willson Contreras starts behind the plate.

So what if something happens to the starting catcher if No. 2 is the DH? We found out in the fifth, when Contreras got ticked off at a check-swing, third-strike call, argued, slammed his bat and got ejected.

Rather than go to the third catcher, Josh Phegley, Ross instead surrendered the DH and put Caratini behind the plate, with the Cubs leading 4-0 at the time.

Ross used his bench to pinch hit for Contreras’ spot in the order the rest of the game.

Schwarb-less

Left fielder Kyle Schwarber was scratched from the lineup because of lingering soreness in his right knee after being hit by a pitch in Tuesday night’s sixth inning.

Schwarber, whose status is considered day-to-day, was replaced in left by Bryant (moving from third base) and in the lineup David Bote (playing third). Schwarber pinch hit in the ninth inning, striking out.

Snare scare

Bryant appeared to jam his left wrist making a diving attempt at César Hernández’ shallow fly to left in the fifth. He grimaced in pain on the play, and it appeared to bother him the rest of the inning.

By the top of the sixth he seemed fine, driving a deep home run to left field. He was replaced in the ninth, but for defense, Ross said.

"I'm OK," Bryant said after the game. "It doesn't feel great."

Where they stand

The Cubs reached the quarter mark of their 60-game schedule at 12-3, the best record in the majors.

On deck

The Cubs return home to open a four-game series Thursday night against the Brewers.

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