There was something poetic here Wednesday night in the fact that the man who helped the Chicago Cubs unburden themselves from one of baseball’s most ignominious certainties did it despite being, both this regular season and postseason, decidedly inconsistent.
Thanks to Jake Arrieta‘s gem, a performance that dazzled for nearly six innings as he danced with the possibility of a World Series no-hitter, the Cubs are three victories from taking it all.
How appropriate, since Arrieta has been one of their biggest paradoxes. The Cubs’ hopes came down to a pitcher who was brought in from Baltimore as a project, who morphed last season into the best pitcher in baseball and the National League’s Cy Young Award winner, and then who this year seemed torn between both versions — the pitcher he had been before and the pitcher he clearly can be.
Arrieta stepped on that mound tonight as the Cubs and all their history in micro: an unexpected success after a tortured history who has, once imbued with all that promise, been struck by looming disappointment and the feeling of a regression.
Of this being too good to be true because … well, it’s the Cubs we’re talking about here.
Not that going 18-8 with a 3.10 ERA, as Arrieta did this year, is a failure. It’s the furthest thing from it. It’s fine. It’s good. It’s really good. But as his team ascended and seemed an unstoppable force, Arrieta’s 2015 level of near-perfection gave way to the ordinary and inconsistent and, at times, the downright bad.
There was no room for that when he faced an Indians team that seemed unable to lose in this postseason.
No-hit stuff? Sure, Arrieta has it. He served one up April 21 against Cincinnati.
But then the struggles descended, carrying through right until Wednesday night. For one stretch in June and July, Arrieta lost four of five decisions, and his team lost six of those seven games he started. Last year, the Cubs only lost a single ballgame from July until the end of the regular season in which Arrieta started.
In September and October, heading into this postseason, the Cubs’ former ace was a pedestrian 2-3 with a 4.60 ERA. Not exactly the stuff of stoppers and heroes.
And heading into this Game 2, which was — let’s be honest here — a must-win for the Cubs, Arrieta had been far from reliable under these unique — and for the Cubs, rare — playoff lights. He had yet to win a playoff game this year. In another big outing, Game 3 of the NLCS and with that series at that time tied at 1, he coughed up four earned runs in five innings. It was up to the rest of the pitching staff to turn things around and get their team here, to Cleveland, to play for the organization’s first championship since 1908.
And then the ball was his: The Cubs’ season and chance at sports redemption was on the line, and a very Cubs-like former ace — a guy whose promise and certainty seemed to be waning — was what stood between an 0-2 series hole and a real shot to win this thing.
And Arrieta dazzled. He pitched out of a first-inning jam in which he walked two Indians. He got into a rhythm. Then we all looked up, and it was the third inning and he had a no-hitter going. Then the fourth. Then the fifth.
“Yeah,” Arrieta said later, “I knew that I hadn’t given up a hit all the way to the sixth.”
By the time that inning rolled around, the Cubs were up 5-0. The victory felt in hand. It was history, now, that Arrieta seemed to be chasing. Or so we were told, again and again, as the broadcast said to hell with jinxes and no no-hitter talk and rolled out graphics and kept saying what was on the line.
But that missed the point.
Arrieta was chasing history, but not the no-hitter. That’s not what he or his team needed. When that no-no ended in the sixth inning with a Jason Kipnis double, and when Kipnis eventually scored on a wild pitch, what mattered most was the fact that Arrieta for almost six innings had reverted to form, had found his best self, and had won his first game of this postseason run.
The Cubs can win a World Series if they can find ways to win the games Arrieta starts. Jon Lester is a postseason ace. Kyle Hendricks, who will start Game 3 for the Cubs on Friday at Wrigley Field, had a league-best 2.13 ERA this season. It was a stunning 1.32 when he pitched at the friendly confines, and he gave up a single earned run in 12 1/3 innings in the NLCS.
Nope, it was Arrieta on whom this series might have turned. And he didn’t merely deliver. He was his old, unhittable self for five crucial innings in the Cubs’ first World Series victory in 71 years.
If the Cubs win it all — and they well might — don’t lose sight of how crucial Jake Arrieta turned out to be in making that happen.