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After 24th straight gem, Jake Arrieta closing in on Clayton Kershaw as game's best

Jake Arrieta was one strike from his second no-hitter in as many seasons, one strike from the 15th no-hitter in Chicago Cubs history, one strike from being the first pitcher to no-hit the Cincinnati Reds in the regular season since 1971, one strike from giving the Cubs fans in attendance at Great American Ballpark the thrill of a lifetime.

Truth was, it wasn't an easy ride for Arrieta to get here. After the game, he said on the Cubs broadcast that, "It felt sloppy from the get-go. The pregame pen was as sloppy as the pregame pen [in] L.A. before that no-hitter. ... Pitching to contact was the goal today, and I did that." He'd walked four batters, including Scott Schebler leading off the ninth. He had just six strikeouts (he had 12 in his no-hitter Aug. 30 against the Los Angeles Dodgers) and was closing in on 120 pitches.

The Cubs fans had all moved down behind the Chicago dugout. Most of the Reds fans had long since gone home, more dispirited by a 16-0 rout than waiting to witness history. The count was 0-2 on Eugenio Suarez, and what chance did he have? Arrieta might throw his fastball. He might throw that unhittable slider. He might throw his changeup -- he does that every so often. Arrieta threw a curveball. It was a beautiful pitch, a big, old-school bender. Suarez didn't swing. He wouldn't have hit it if he had. It caught the corner.

Except plate umpire Dana DeMuth called it a ball. Arrieta didn't blink. If he twitched, I missed it. Maybe he gave a bit of an extra stare. For a split second, it was easy to think that was the pitch, that was the second life Suarez needed. But Arrieta isn't a guy who is going to lose focus. That's not how he became a Cy Young winner, a man who has continued his historic run of dominance from last season. Two pitches later, Suarez popped up to right field.

Arrieta was most happy for his catcher, David Ross, who had homered in Cubs' blitz. Everyone loves Ross, who is considered one of the best teammates in the game. He'd never caught a no-hitter. Arrieta was glad to "give him that in his last season. We were hugging at the end and he just kept saying, 'Thank you, thank you.'"

So this what a no-hitter feels like:

Earlier in the day, Arrieta had tweeted this:

Tonight, we can thank him for giving baseball fans a moment of joy on a sad day.

Amazingly, Arrieta has thrown 24 consecutive quality starts in the regular season. He's 20-1 in those games, with an 0.84 ERA and 173 strikeouts against just 33 walks. He's 4-0 in four starts in 2016 with an 0.87 ERA. That's right, he's in a slump.

I think of all the great pitchers in my lifetime -- Ron Guidry in 1978 and Dwight Gooden in 1985 and the peaks of Hall of Famers like Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux -- but it's fair to ask: Have we seen a pitcher dominate like this over an extended period of time? Here's one way to understand it: In his past 119⅓ innings, Arrieta has allowed seven earned runs. David Price, not exactly chopped liver, allowed eight earned runs earlier Thursday.

You know, we spent all week talking about the impressive start to 2016 for Noah Syndergaard. We've seen the talk on Twitter, I've seen the articles. Is Syndergaard ready to surpass Clayton Kershaw as the game's best pitcher?

Maybe we need to back up, because Arrieta doesn't appear ready to relinquish his claim that he's as good as Kershaw. (Of course, on some level, it's like every young, talented center fielder of the past 50 years who gets compared to Willie Mays. If everyone is compared to Mays, it means he's still the best.)

With all due respect to Syndergaard, it has been only three starts. We have to give him more time and more starts before we can definitively compare him to the best (although there's obviously a good chance he gets there). A good formula to answer this question is the one Bill James uses at Bill James Online in his starting pitching rankings, which gives a lot of weight to a pitcher's most recent starts but also factors in long-term performance. James had just made a note that Arrieta had jumped to No. 2 in his rankings behind Kershaw, passing Max Scherzer. Syndergaard is at 45, but he'll move up the list quickly if he keeps pitching like this.

So that sounds right:

1. Kershaw

2. Arrieta

I don't know, though. I'm curious to see how this looks in a couple months. Maybe Arrieta will actually have a bad game by then. I mean, it's going to happen at some point. ... Right?