Jake Arrieta gave up a grand slam on the 10th pitch he threw in his start against the Phillies on Tuesday night.
That’s hard to do, just mathematically.
Not winning-a-Cy-Young-Award hard to do.
Not 20-dominant-starts-in-a-row hard to do.
Not busting-a-108-year-old-curse hard to do.
In fact, all of those other things are the hardest part about watching what Arrieta’s going through during this second act with the Cubs.
A healthy dose of boos was mixed in with some cheers when Arrieta was pulled just two outs into the second on Tuesday — three more second-inning runs having been tacked on to Andrew McCutchen’s four-run swing in the first.
And there it was. The sound of a franchise icon hitting bottom.
Of a legacy scratched and dinged by what’s looking increasingly like an ill-advised decision to return to where he experienced the kind of glory few players ever experience — maybe even an attempt to recapture at least some of it.
But this is not that Cubs team. And he is not that Jake Arrieta.
And like everybody knows, you can’t go home again.
“I’ve seen him at his best,” said Cubs manager David Ross, a 2015-16 teammate. “I’ve seen too many good outings to believe this version of him, and maybe that’s me being naive. This guy’s meant so much to the franchise, to me personally, that it’s a hard thing for me to wrap my brain around.”
This is what he’s talking about: The 2015 Cy Young winner, who went 3-2 with a 2.57 ERA his first five starts this year, is 2-7 with an 8.55 ERA in 12 starts since, failing to pitch out of the second inning in each of the last two — including Wednesday in Milwaukee after being staked to a 7-0 first-inning lead.
Arrieta is the Cubs’ worst starter this season, and by Tuesday night Ross no longer was willing to commit to letting him make his next turn.
Arrieta made no excuses and vowed double down on working to get right again.
“The stuff’s too good. I still have a lot left in the tank,” he said. “There’s no question about that.”
But while the velocity looks good, it’s getting hit hard. And he’s not locating the breaking stuff. And, consequently, he’s surrendering an opponents’ OPS of .878 this season — making the average hitter facing him more prolific this year than Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman, Nolan Arenado or Kris Bryant.
All of which made the first question to him after Tuesday’s game, the most obvious: Is he worried he’s nearing the end of the line in his career at 35?
“No. Not even close,” he said.
But what next? And whatever it might be, will it be with the Cubs? Should it be? Should it have been this year at all?
Credit Arrieta with the guts and characteristic swagger to believe he could return from three tough, injury-hampered seasons in Philadelphia to have an impact again in Chicago.
And many of us believed along with him that it might even be possible when he signed that one-year contract late in the offseason — as naive as that might sound now, to borrow from Ross’ perspective.
Even from a media standpoint few players offer the privilege to cover the kind of run Arrieta produced from the time he joined the team in that 2013 trade from Baltimore through his playoff victory over the Dodgers in 2017 — the Cubs’ last playoff win.
Between the elite performance, swagger to match and certainty that he would do it all again with each successive season, he was the rarest of athletes to cover at his peak — a peak that makes his struggles this season especially tough to watch.
No single player did more to end the Cubs infamous 108-year curse than Arrieta.
That Cy Young season — which included one of the greatest 20-start finishes in history — was followed by an epic wild-card performance in Pittsburgh, an All-Star season in 2016, followed by two huge road wins in the World Series on the way to the most celebrated championship in major league history.
He sprinkled in two no-hitters along the way.
“I don’t even think we’re competitive in ’15 without him,” then-team president Theo Epstein said in 2017. “And we’re not a playoff team without him. Maybe the whole timetable for the rebuild is different without him.”
Nobody can ever take that away. Those seasons and moments are indelibly etched among the franchise’s greatest accomplishments.
But if this is the way Arrieta’s final chapter as a Cub ends, it’s a terrible epilogue to an otherwise great story.
It’s not quite Willie Mays playing a year too long with the Mets in 1973 (look it up).
“It’s still there,” Arrieta said of his major-league stuff. “It is.”
But it’s not here. Not now. Not when the Cubs need it most — their season-crushing losing streak reaching 11 games Tuesday.
“There’s no storybook ending that’s just magically going to be written,” Arrieta said. “We have to create that as a group. And I have to be a big part of that as an individual.”
The problem is that looks more fairy tale than happy ending at this point.