Second City October: NLCS Game Four, The Snake Makes His Exit

Jake Arrieta has inspired awe and poetic rhapsodizing more than any other Cubs player in the past few years. With his bushy beard, stolid physique, and no-hit stuff, it was hard to resist Arrieta’s allure as a pitcher—on any given evening, Arrieta could crossfire his way to a complete game shutout with a dozen strikeouts. The man sometimes eschewed batting gloves in favor of an au natural grip, and he displayed old school, Texas power at the plate. He tossed over 800 innings of regular season, 2.73 ERA ball with the Cubs, and the trade that brought him from Baltimore to Chicago will grace lists of lopsided deals for many years.

Arrieta will toe the rubber at Wrigley Field for the final time this evening, his ninth postseason start for these Chicago Cubs in the past three seasons. The pitcher who served as the muse for my own favorite piece of Cubs writing will ride into the sunset, $100 million contract in tow. It’s been many years since the Cubs have parted with a star player still in his prime due to free agency or trade, with perhaps only Aramis Ramirez  or Starlin Castro cracking that category. Arrieta’s star is brighter than that of Castro, and Arrieta is closer to his prime than Ramirez; the righty is guaranteed to garner a long, lucrative free agent deal with a team not located on the North Side of Chicago. This is Arrieta’s last start with the Cubs, barring a miracle.

Arrieta has one more chance to imprint upon Cubs fans’ memories, and he’ll have to do it opposite Alex Wood. The Cubs have a better chance in this game than might be apparent at first glance, considering the bats’ futility versus Dodgers pitching, as the Dodgers’ bullpen did toss four innings last night. The Cubs’ bats had a spark in the early innings versus Yu Darvish before petering out in the middle innings as Darvish sharpened his breaking ball. The Cubs won’t win if they can’t plate more than one run, but Arrieta delivers them an excellent opportunity.

Down the stretch, Arrieta pitched better than he had since the first half of 2016. His inflated ERA, peaking in the mid-fives in May, steadily declined throughout the second half, finally landing in the mid-threes. His slider/cutter sharpened, and the mechanical issues that have plagued him over the past year seemed to be behind him, at least temporarily. In his Game Four start at Wrigley versus the Nationals, Arrieta muddled through four innings of one-run ball on 90 pitches, his first start in two weeks due to a hamstring injury. Stephen Strasburg pitched the game of his life, however, and Arrieta ended up with a hard-luck loss while walking five of 20 batters he faced. A shot at minor redemption looms here, and six days’ rest hopefully allowed Arrieta’s hamstring to further heal. Efficiency will be the name of the game—never Arrieta’s strong suit—as the Cubs’ bullpen has been wildly inconsistent, losing the trust of Joe Maddon in the process. If Arrieta and the Cubs are to win, the departing righty needs to throw six-plus innings versus a tough Dodgers lineup. It won’t be easy, but Arrieta has stared down tough lineups before and emerged the victor.

Recall the no-hitter that sealed Arrieta’s 2015 Cy Young, also against these Los Angeles Dodgers. A bevy of weak contact supplemented twelve strikeouts, as Arrieta walked only one hitter, another reaching on an error by Starlin Castro. Arrieta was serving Dodgers hitters a 91-mph slider/cutter hybrid, running it in on the hands of lefties and off the plate outside to righties. A few times, Arrieta was successful in burying that breaking ball in the dirt and inducing some ugly whiffs from Dodgers hitters, something that the righty struggles to do currently. His defense performed exceedingly well, despite the error, and Arrieta struck out the side in the ninth to secure an impressive no-hitter, spawning an iconic photo of the amped Arrieta walking off the mound.

Later that year, Arrieta would throw a complete game shutout in the Wild Card game in Pittsburgh, striking out 11 and allowing only four hits. Kyle Schwarber’s bomb into the Allegheny dominates memories of that game, but Arrieta’s stunning performance catapulted the Cubs into the Division Series versus St. Louis. It was a vintage outing, with Arrieta harnessing his stuff just enough to be effectively wild. To add to his growing legend, Tony Watson hit Arrieta with a pitch in the seventh after Arrieta had hit two Pirates batters, and the hurler promptly stole second without a throw. While Arrieta would toss another no-hitter the following spring in Cincinnati, the Wild Card was the peak of Arrieta’s Cubs tenure—it captured the righty in his purest form, dominating with a wipeout breaking ball and ruffling a few feathers along the way.

I once likened Arrieta to a vessel for our stories and our myths: through his remarkable pitching performances, he offered us a canvas on which to paint images of pitchers past, an opportunity to reminisce with our fellow fan-historians on the ascendant performances of our youths. I’ll stand by that metaphor. But now Arrieta himself enters the pantheon of pitchers tugging at the threads of history and memory, as he inevitably strides off the Wrigley Field mound one last time in front of a playoff crowd, a Cy Young Award and World Series victory in hand.

Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports

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