Heading into Friday’s game, Jake Arrieta was 8-1 with a 1.58 ERA and 0.784 WHIP in 11 career starts against the Bucs. So, yeah, that’s good. Given those numbers, his most recent line was really nothing special: 6 IP, 2 hits, 3 walks, 0 runs, which brought his career Pirates split to 9-1 with a 1.46 ERA. You’d think it’d be a conflict of interest for Arrieta to pitch for the Cubs while owning the Pirates, but MLB keeps letting it happen so I guess I’m okay with it. Oh, burn!
While the end result wasn’t all that remarkable, the route Arrieta took to get there certainly was. Those two hits he allowed came to consecutive batters leading off the 3rd inning. Jordy Mercer got things going with a single and then Chris Stewart pushed his teammate to third with a base knock of his own. Putting men on first and third to open an inning is pretty much a sure recipe for a run. Unless Arrieta’s pitching.
After such a promising start, Francisco Liriano, John Jaso’s hair, and Gregory Polanco all went down on strikes to a curve, slider, and fastball, respectively. Even the best pitchers are going to get into tight spots now and again, but the really great ones find ways to wriggle free. I can’t even imagine how demoralizing it is for a team on the schneid and missing its ace (still think the Cubs aren’t the best team in baseball, Gerrit Cole?) and starting catcher to come up short in a rare moment of weakness for one of the best pitchers on the planet.
And that wasn’t even Arrieta’s greatest escape.
After getting Liriano to line out leading off the 6th, Arrieta walked Jaso, Poloanco, and Andrew McCutchen. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s bases loaded with only one out. Again, a perfect run-scoring opportunity. And when Arrieta went 3-0 on David Freese, it was looking very much like the wheels were about to fall off. Instead, the Cubs ace just kept pumping sinkers until he iced Freese.
He’d gotten one arm free from the straightjacket, but Arrieta had a long way to go yet. The bases were still loaded and he was at 106 pitches and was clearly struggling with his control. Knowing that, Matt Joyce went to the plate taking all the way. Arrieta got a called strike to open the at-bat before missing on a sinker and a pair of sliders. Did I mention that it was only 2-0 Cubs at this point? Kinda high-leverage.
Arrieta paused, fired, and got a called strike on another sinker: 3-2. Most batters would be looking to hit something in such a situation, but Joyce probably realized that showing the boss up would be a bad career move. Either that or he was just adopting the strategy of so many overmatched Little Leaguers trying to hit against the kid who developed way faster than everyone else. Just keep the bat on your shoulder and hope he walks you. Arrieta just did what Arrieta just does, splitting the plate with a sinker and walking off, pumping his fist imperceptibly while Joyce stood there impotently with his bat in his hands.
Under normal circumstances, I’d be writing about the underappreciated Matt Szczur opening the scoring with an absolute rocket to left that took Dexter Fowler along for the ride. Or maybe about how Albert Almora refuses to do anything to diminish the intensity of the flame I’ve been carrying for him since I saw him hit for the cycle and throw his glove in anger while cursing loudly after failing to make a spectacular play in center for advanced-A Daytona. The rookie was 3-for-4 with a pair of RBI hits and a walk (!) Friday and is now hitting .429 in his young career.
As an aside, I’m starting to seriously doubt my prediction that this kid goes back to Iowa when Jorge Soler and Tommy La Stella come back. I know the Cubs want him to get regular at-bats, but he’s just so freaking good.
Regardless of the offensive production, though, the story of the game was Arrieta’s performance under pressure. Twice the Pirates got themselves in position to score multiple runs. Twice Arrieta dug deep/buckled down/gritted his teeth to prevent them from doing so. It’s so cliche to talk about a guy being able to shift to that next gear, but then you watch something like this and you know it’s more than just a tired sports metaphor. Well, it is a tired metaphor. It’s also true, so it’s cool to keep using it here.
Not a bad way to wash away the stank of a somewhat disappointing series in D.C., and a great way start a brief homestand against the Pirates and Cardinals that could really allow the Cubs to run away and hide from their division rivals. Is anyone actually still reading? I applaud you for actually making it this far, as I’d have stopped at the video and just kept replaying it.
Anyway, thanks for stopping by. Talk to you again soon.