Expectations were high as Jake Arrieta took the mound at Wrigley Field for the first time since his latest gem in a series of dominant starts. That gem just happened to be his first career no-hitter, so everyone was asking ‘How can he top that?’ Even though he gave four puny humans permission to reach first base this time around, I was impressed even more by Arrieta in his start against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
You know the story by now. Arrieta’s gonna come at you with a plethora of plus pitches and you’re going to flail at them in hopes of fouling one away. He’ll make you spin out of your footing on a perfectly placed curve, wonder if a pitch hit you on a 93 mph lovechild of a slider/cutter, fear for your life as a 97 mph two-seamer backs in on your hands. And just to keep you on your toes, he’ll yank a lefty’s shoulders out of their sockets with a changeup with ridiculous fading action—and that’s when he isn’t feeling the big, sweeping slider.
Arrieta stymied the desert snakes with these pitches for seven innings, showing his human side only once as he approached the 100-pitch plateau. It was the seventh inning and Arrieta had already made me laugh hysterically as he threw a 3-2 high and inside fastball at 95 past MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt for his seventh strikeout. But then he began to tire out.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia came to the plate and the first pitch was nasty as usual.
That first pitch was sharp. It had downward break at a high velocity, but most importantly, Arrieta hit his spot. That will get you success. The second pitch was a changeup, a pitch designed to get opposite side hitters to extend their arms with the illusion of hitting a pitch that only fades into uncharted territory. Arrieta hung it:
That’s when I began to think this was most likely his final batter. The change never looked deceptive. David Ross then called for a fastball on the same spot, yet Arrieta missed his spot. The pitch was in the upper, outer third of the zone and luckily Saltalamacchia didn’t go with it and hit it to left. Strike two.
Usually when a batter finds himself down in the count against Arrieta, he’s dead meat. Toast. Cocinado. This year, the opposition has hit .117/.127/.169 with 170 strikeouts when they’re down in the count against the Cubs big righty. As mentioned above, Arrieta has an array of weapons to use to get the job done with surgical precision. However, he was tiring out there. The 1-2 pitch was intended to be his hammer curve, but yet again, Arrieta hung it so poorly it never even piqued Salty’s interest. Ball two.
This is something I hadn’t seen in a while. Not that Arrieta was battling—he’d battled a couple of hitters earlier in the game—but that he was struggling. Three of his weapons just weren’t cutting it. It was time to bring out the trusty slider. It’s his trademark pitch, after all. Result? The hitter barrels it up, pulling a hard line drive foul.
Arrieta trusts his stuff, however. I mean, why wouldn’t he? It’s electric. He attempts to repeat the pitch, he hangs it middle middle and Saltalamacchia crushed it. Luckily, it stayed in the park. Two-out double, and all of a sudden Jake Arrieta seemed human.
We won’t get into detail with the next at-bat; Arrieta managed to strand Saltalamacchia on second base, though it was because Jake Lamb did him a favor and missed a bad pitch, resulting in a ground out. The conclusion, though, seemed to be consensus: Arrieta’s day was done. He had pitched seven four-hit innings of shutout baseball without yielding any free passes and punching out seven. It was a mighty fine outing, and nothing short of an ace’s work.
Imagine the surprise when Arrieta hit for himself in the bottom half of the inning and went out to pitch the eighth of a 2-0 game. The skepticism made its rounds through my Twitter timeline, one person even asking if Joe Maddon just doesn’t trust his usual late-inning relievers Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm in this situation. I, however, saw something else.
The Arizona Diamondbacks are no light-hitting squad. The trio of Paul Goldschmidt, David Peralta, and AJ Pollock have combined for 47 home runs this season. Their offense as a whole ranks third in the National League by wOBA. Shutting this team out is no simple task. And here was Joe Maddon displaying so much faith in his horse that he let him go face that lineup once again, even after looking as flat as he did in the seventh inning and after throwing 103 pitches on a hot afternoon.
When the top of the eighth came around, Arrieta took the mound to face Brandon Dury, Chris Owings, and the pitcher’s spot. He retired all three in order, recording 6-3, F9, and 3-1 putouts. What we need to talk about is his pitch selection for the inning. He threw one slider and one curve. That’s it. A 13-pitch inning in which Arrieta knew he had no command of his secondary pitches, so he relied on the overwhelming power and life of his fastball. He wasn’t hitting his spots, but he is just that overpowering. Even when he isn’t at his best, you can gamble of Arrieta’s pulverizing stuff.
This was important. Seeing Jake Arrieta do this foreshadowed something we may see once again in the postseason. Can Maddon trust Arrieta to get him one more out in October? Two? Maybe even go a whole inning? It could potentially blow up in their faces, the way it did on Grady Little and Pedro Martinez in that famous 2003 ALCS against the juggernaut Yankees. Or it could make for one of the more legendary moments in Chicago Cubs history. If and when this does happen, remember that you saw Arrieta audition for the part—and boy, oh boy, he’s got it in the bag.
Lead photo courtesy of Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports