ST. LOUIS -- One can only imagine what it was like for Chicago Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta three years ago Thursday. Playing for the Baltimore Orioles on April 21, 2013, he gave up five runs on five walks in four innings. His ERA after four starts was 6.63. And on the next day, April 22, 2013, he was banished to the minors -- returning for only one more start with the big league club before being traded to the Cubs that July.
“I envisioned pitching like this even when I had a 5 [ERA] in Baltimore,” Arrieta said after the game. “Regardless of how long it took or what I had to go through to get there.”
Well, he’s arrived, and if last year’s historic second half wasn’t enough proof -- as if it couldn’t be enough -- Arrieta has picked up where he left off, winning his fourth game in four starts in 2016 and lowering his ERA to 0.87. The scary thing is he didn’t even have his best stuff Thursday. Not even close. That came against the Los Angeles Dodgers last August in no-hitter No. 1.
“He was definitely off,” catcher David Ross said. “He was probably off for the first four or five innings.”
But then Arrieta found his groove, using only 18 pitches to get through the sixth and seventh innings. At that point, the Reds were in real trouble.
“We always expect that from Jake,” center fielder Dexter Fowler said.
As much as Arrieta was the storyline, so was Ross. In his 15th and final season in the big leagues, he caught his first no-hitter. Known affectionately as “Grandpa Rossy,” Ross' teammates were as happy for him as they were for Arrieta -- and that includes the pitcher himself. It was Ross who got a Gatorade shower in the dugout and was asked to attend the postgame press conference. But he came to the interview room for another reason. He needed something for his scrapbook.
"I didn't want any questions -- I just want a picture,” Ross joked to reporters.
Ross wanted a picture with Arrieta, who just finished answering questions about a no-hitter in an opposing team’s facility for the second time in 10 regular-season starts. Two men at different points in their careers sat there making sure photographers got a good shot. If his first no-hitter was about the rise of Arrieta as an elite pitcher, the second one might be about the team -- and its cast of characters -- around him.
“My good offense gets overshadowed by a no-hitter,” Ross exclaimed. “I’m kind of mad at him.”
Ross hit a home run and scored three times as the Cubs put up 15 more runs than Arrieta needed, winning for the 12th time this year. In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the last six times the Cubs have scored in the first inning for Arrieta -- they did so twice on Thursday -- they’ve gone on to shut out the opponent. Is it possible he needs only an early run and it’s game over? He’s making it seem that way.
“The preparation is what allows the success to happen naturally,” Arrieta said. “I came out with shaky command of all my pitches, but I was using them nonetheless. As the game got on, I got more comfortable.”
It sounds like a cliché, but that preparation is what Arrieta relies on. His body and mind always are in sync, allowing him to maximize his performance even when his stuff is off. He can right the ship faster than most.
“Mentally he expects to do that,” Ross said. “He’s not shocked when he does stuff like that.”
At this point, no one is shocked by Arrieta’s accomplishments. In fact, Anthony Rizzo took the opposite approach, not considering the idea of another no-hitter as the game went on. Been there, done that was his attitude, as Arrieta has come so close so many times, including, of course, his masterpiece in L.A. when he broke through.
“I gave up on his no-hitters last year after he [lost] one early because you start thinking about it, riding the wave with it,” Rizzo said half-kidding. “So me, personally, I stopped thinking about it and treat it like every other game.”
We know he’s mostly kidding, but his point isn’t a bad one. This is becoming old hat for the Cubs when Arrieta is on the mound, but it’s not old hat for Ross. The end of his career is coming, so this is as special as it gets.
“It’s special for me, for not only myself, but for him in his last season,” Arrieta said.
Rizzo added, “We’re just checking off things for him [Ross] that he’s never done.”
It’s the ultimate sign of the camaraderie the Cubs have formed after bursting onto the scene as a wild-card team last season. Their star player throws his second no-hitter and half the talk is about the retiring catcher who caught it. So he gets the final word.
“I’m on cloud nine,” Ross said. “As a catcher and a guy who prides himself on calling a game, it’s one of those things I really wanted to do. Or be a part of ... I didn’t do a whole lot. That animal was in control the whole time.”