As a guy who’s worked the land all his life, my dad’s a little jaded when it comes to the exploits of professional athletes, so it was pretty cool to reach for my phone after feeling it buzzing in my pocket to let me know that a text had come in. I was just settling into my recliner with my laptop to chronicle the latest in a growing string of Jake Arrieta pearls when I saw the messages:
Cy Young winner and rookie of the year on the same team. Go cubs!!!!!!
This team is so fun to watch!
Dad, is that you? I’ve written ad nauseam about how fun this team is and how much I’ve enjoyed watching them, how much we’ve all enjoyed watching them. But as I read those texts and saw Arrieta bro-hugging the teammates who had just made him an unwilling participant in the Ice Bucket Challenge, a peaceful smile appeared on my face. I don’t live under my parents’ roof any longer — blogger narrative busted! — but in that moment I flashed back to the days of my childhood, listening to the ’84 team on the radio while riding in the combine with my old man.
I’m sure many of you have similar memories. Maybe it was a grandparent or an uncle, someone who took you under their wing and welcomed you into the fraternity that is Cubs fandom. As strange as it may sound to an outsider who sees the bricks and ivy and blue pinstripes as a symbol of unmitigated failure, I have always felt a sense of safety and security in my team. It’s eating crackers on my Grandpap’s living room floor or traveling to Chicago with my dad and my Grandpa Mac to see my first night game.
While he’s not necessarily a father figure for the Cubs, Jake Arrieta has provided no less security for them. Every time he takes the mound, you know what you’re going to get. The Cubs know what they’re going to get. For a fanbase that seems to relish the anxiety of waiting for the other shoe to drop, Arrieta has repeatedly put his foot down this season. In becoming the team’s first 20-game winner since Jon Lieber in 2001, he provides the gruff, stolid foil to the comic book superheroes by whom he is surrounded.
That’s taking nothing away from Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, nor any of the other outstanding players populating the roster. Rather, it’s just to say that the ace pitcher has become the galvanizing force behind the Cubs’ unexpected success this season. His unrelenting excellence has given a little extra leeway, whether it’s the bullpen getting the day off or the hitters knowing they don’t need to press to score 6+ runs when he’s on the bump. It makes things quite a bit easier on the fans too.
Jake Arrieta is now 20-6 with a 1.88 ERA in 31 starts this season. He has allowed only 52 runs in 2015, and only 45 of those were earned. Three pitchers (Jeff Samardzija – 60; Alfredo Simon – 49; Ubaldo Jimenez – 48) have allowed more earned runs in the second half alone. This is probably the best campaign we’ve seen from a Cubs pitcher since Greg Maddux won the first of 4 consecutive Cy Youngs in 1992 (incidentally, the last 20-win season prior to Lieber’s). Kerry Wood and Mark Prior put up some really nice stats in there as well, but I believe what we’re witnessing from Arrieta is the best pitching we’ve seen on the North Side in at least the last generation.
But this isn’t about historical comparisons. It’s about a pitcher coming into his own just as his team is doing the same. As great as the season has been though, the real test will come in a couple weeks, when Arrieta is pitching in the Wild Card game. It’ll be interesting to see how Joe Maddon chooses to deploy his most potent weapon over this final stretch of games. He’s decided to skip Dan Haren’s next start, which means Arrieta will face the Pirates Sunday night at Wrigley and then next Friday in Milwaukee. That latter start would mean pitching on normal rest for the playoffs.
I think Maddon will want to keep Arrieta as close to his normal routine as possible, but there’s also no need to pile innings on the man’s arm when the Cubs’ fate is already decided. Of course, while a playoff berth could be secured by the weekend, the location of that first game may still be in question up until the final days of the season. Lots of moving parts, like a chess match played out on alternating squares of dirt and grass. That’s why it’s so nice to have Gary Kasparov in the dugout with Deep Blue out on the mound.
Now I just hope I get to see a few more texts from my dad over the coming weeks.