CHICAGO -- For once, the Cy Young Award candidate needed help. After carrying the Chicago Cubs on his back every five days for the better part of three months, righty Jake Arrieta finally looked human in Game 3 of the Cubs' divisional playoff series with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Like his counterpart, Michael Wacha, Arrieta struggled with his command as well as the conditions at Wrigley Field on Monday. Warm temperatures brought a 17 mph wind that blew straight out and got fiercer as the game went along. The result was a record six postseason home runs hit by the Cubs and four earned runs given up by Arrieta -- as many as he’d allowed in his previous 11 starts combined.
“They had a really good approach today,” Arrieta said of the Cardinals.
Shortly after Jason Heyward homered off of him in the sixth inning, Arrieta's day was, shockingly, done. No one thought Cubs manager Joe Maddon would have to go to his bullpen so early in the game -- not with Arrieta’s pitch count at “infinity,” as the manager put it after Arrieta's previous outing and again before this one. Most surprised by Arrieta's early exit was the Cubs' relief staff.
“Pretty much everyone thinks it’s a day off when he pitches,” emerging middle man Trevor Cahill said. “I usually just go in the weight room and take it easy.”
Not Monday. Cahill was called upon to get two outs in the seventh, and the right-hander struck out the first two batters he faced before giving way to lefty Travis Wood. Cahill was similarly effective in Game 2.
“He deserved the offense coming through and the bullpen to pick him up,” Cahill said of Arrieta. “We wanted to do that for him. He still pitched well.”
Cahill also has been pitching well. Including his 1⅔ postseason innings, he’s thrown 18⅔ innings with the Cubs, giving up just nine hits and striking out 26. Maybe his success can be traced to his socks. He’s been wearing Dodger blue after spending a short time in that organization earlier this year.
“I was getting blisters on the top of my foot and these socks are a lot thicker, so I was wearing them when I came to the Cubs and I’m going to keep wearing them,” Cahill said. “I was throwing well at Triple-A so I’m not going to change my socks.”
Whatever works. That’s the attitude Pedro Strop has been taking against the Cardinals, as he’ll try anything when facing them right now. Strop sported an 11.05 regular-season ERA against St. Louis, and that number only grew after he gave up a home run in Game 1. Maddon avoided using Strop in a setup role in Game 2, but went back to him in the eighth inning of Game 3. He took care of the Cardinals without incident, striking out two.
“That was huge for me,” Strop said. “I was really focused on getting that first guy out.”
A six-pitch at-bat to Tony Cruz concluded with a called strike three to end the inning, sending a once-jittery crowd into a frenzy. And it led to one of Strop’s patented fist-pumps. This one came as he did a 360 after getting a call on the outside corner. On a scale of 1 to 10, it was a good one -- but not his best.
“I would say a 7,” Strop said, laughing. “I’ve done worse. It’s always fun.”
Strop knew what he had to do moments earlier as he walked slowly in from the bullpen. The nervous crowd -- both in the stands and on the Internet, where Strop sightings can set social media alight -- watched as he dismissed the Cardinals on 18 pitches.
“This is our home,” Strop said. “We know we have to keep the ball down when the wind is blowing out.”
A two-out, two-run home run by Stephen Piscotty off closer Hector Rondon ruined the bullpen’s perfect night, but it meant little in the outcome as the Cubs had a four-run cushion at the time. So while everyone assumed Maddon would need his relief staff in Games 2 and 4 -- in other words, games not started by Jon Lester or Arrieta -- the pen came through for him just when his ace came up short.
“The body of work for the bullpen recently has been outstanding,” Maddon stated. “I really anticipate they're going to stay that way because they're good and they're fresh.”
Arrieta described the bullpen's night the way most talk about him after that relief staff helped put the Cubs on the brink of a berth in the National League Championship Series. They’re up 2-1 in the best-of-five division series with Game 4 set for Tuesday at Wrigley.
“Incredible,” Arrieta said. “Absolutely incredible.”