It was an exciting game in Arizona on Sunday afternoon, featuring home runs, near-home runs, pitcher home runs, and a Chicago offense that continues to look nigh unstoppable. Jake Arrieta pitched like a mere mortal instead of his demigod self of 2015, but mortal is plenty good enough when backed by an offense as dangerous as this one.
Top Play (WPA): It’s nice when WPA works like it’s supposed to, and it does in this game, tagging what was easily the most memorable moment as the most impactful on the Cubs’ chances of winning. With two outs in the second, Shelby Miller looked like he’d escape his second straight shaky inning without a scratch. Two batters previously, Miguel Montero had smashed a pitch that hit the center field wall about six inches shy of a home run, keeping the game tied at zero. As Jake Arrieta came to the plate with two outs in the inning, Diamondbacks fans had to feel like they had narrowly avoided an early deficit. That was before Jake Arrieta worked a full count and forced Miller to groove a fastball that he then hit a whopping 440 feet to dead center, giving the Cubs a 2-0 lead and taking their odds of winning the game from 48.3% to 66.9% (+.186).
Bottom Play (WPA): The game didn’t get away from the Diamondbacks just yet, however, and in the top of the seventh, it was still very winnable for the home team, with the Cubs looking to build on a 4-3 lead. The inning opened well for Chicago, with a walk by Jason Heyward and a single by Kris Bryant, bringing Anthony Rizzo to the plate with runners on first and third and nobody out and a chance to break the game open (win probability of 82.6%). Instead, he watched a 92MPH fastball go by for strike three, and the Diamondbacks’ odds of escaping the inning unscathed improved greatly (win probability of 76.8% (-.059)). Fortunately for the Cubs, a Jorge Soler sac fly and a Tommy La Stella single would plate both Heyward and Bryant, and the Cubs would exit the inning with a secure lead despite Rizzo’s K.
Key Moment: Arrieta looked like his usual efficient self through the first three innings, allowing two hits and no walks while striking out three. With Miller looking shaky and at 84 pitches through four innings, the game felt secure. But Arrieta would run into trouble in the fourth, starting with Paul Goldschmidt, who sent a changeup on the inside half of the plate out to the left field bleachers, bringing the score to 3-1. That dinger was followed nearly immediately by a David Peralta double and a Jake Lamb single, and the Cubs lead was cut to a single run. Arrieta had given up two earned runs total in his last ten starts before Sunday, so the idea that a three-run lead could be anything other than completely secure with him on the mound was jarring.
The Cubs’ much-vaunted selectivity was nowhere to be found in the top half of the fifth, as well, with Miller getting Heyward, Bryant, and Rizzo on only six pitches. Then, in the bottom half, Socrates Brito lined Arrieta’s 88 MPH slider just over the RF fence, and in only two innings, a game that had felt entirely secure was suddenly tied, and trending in the wrong direction. That uncomfortable and unfamiliar feeling wouldn’t last long, however; Miller stayed in for the top of the sixth, perhaps buoyed by his efficient fifth, but a key solo shot by Jorge Soler and a single by Tommy La Stella quickly ended his afternoon. Randall Delgado would strike out Arrieta and Zobrist to escape the inning without further damage, but the Cubs had regained the lead, and didn’t look back.
Trend to Watch: Arrieta looked competent, if not brilliant, on Sunday with a final line of seven innings, eight hits, three runs, six strikeouts, zero walks, and two home runs. Perhaps not what fans have come to expect from the 2015 Cy Young winner, but good enough when accompanied by Chicago’s offense and its relentless, steady press. That Arrieta hasn’t looked this “bad” in nearly nine months says more about his incredible second-half run last year than it does about his performance today. Today’s start does present the idea that Arrieta may not perfectly replicate his Cy Young performance of last year, however, and that Cubs fans may need to accustom themselves to an Arrieta who’s only great instead of entirely untouchable.
Coming Next: The Cubs exit Sunday’s contest with a 5-1 record, their best start since 1988. After the series against the Diamondbacks, the roster situation is no clearer: Tommy La Stella’s lefthanded bat continues to fill a useful role in the lineup, and his three hits on Sunday don’t make him look any more expendable. With 12 position players getting a PA in today’s game, it’s clear Joe Maddon enjoys the flexibility and depth of the current roster, but it means the Cubs will face some tough decisions about the division of playing time in the near future. For now, they return to Chicago on top of the NL Central and to a forecast completely devoid of snow. Wrigley will be buzzing tomorrow night as the Cubs take on the (surprisingly) 5-1 Reds. Jon Lester will take the mound against young southpaw Brandon Finnegan. First pitch is at 7:05 Central on WGN.
Lead photo courtesy Mark J. Rebilas—USA Today Sports