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Jake Arrieta pitches like the ace he has become for Cubs

CHICAGO -- Most major league players improve with experience, but Jake Arrieta believes his transformation has been so dramatic that his current version (over the past two seasons) is a completely different pitcher than the one from his first four seasons.

“What I did before in my career, you can pretty much throw it out the window,” he said. “That’s kinda out of sight, out of mind. I’ve used things over the past several years to help myself move forward and continue to progress.

“I’m locked in right now -– still with opportunities to get even better.”

Arrieta (13-6) allowed just four hits in 7⅔ scoreless innings to lead the Chicago Cubs to a 2-0 victory against the San Francisco Giants on Sunday and complete a four-game sweep of the World Series champions.

The young Cubs entered the series trailing the Giants by a half-game in the race for the second wild-card spot in the National League. They now have a 3½-game lead.

That transformation also wasn’t lost on Arrieta.

“The most gratifying thing for me is coming up big for your teammates,” he said. “Winning the first three with a chance to sweep, I was in the mindset of coming out to dominate today. Put us in a situation where we only needed one or two [runs]. That’s what I was able to do, and we were able to scratch for enough early in the first couple innings. ... We were able to make it hold up.”

That’s an ace mentality, and that’s precisely what Arrieta has become. The right-hander lowered his ERA to 2.38 this season after going 10-5 with a 2.53 ERA last season.

At 29, Arrieta has developed into the No. 1 starter on one of the best teams in the NL. That’s a far cry from the talented but erratic pitcher who didn’t have an ERA below 4.66 during his 3½ seasons with the Baltimore Orioles.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon got to watch Arrieta up close when both were in the American League East. Maddon believes the difference between then and now is simple.

“Fastball command,” the manager said. “That’s what happens when a guy with really good abilities. The moment he’s able to throw a strike when he wants to with his fastball, he becomes pretty good.”

Arrieta has been better than pretty good of late. He has tossed 10 straight quality starts (at least six innings pitched with three or fewer runs allowed) dating back to June 21.

Catcher Miguel Montero was asked how Arrieta was on Sunday and decided to have a little fun with the questioner.

“He was OK,” Montero said. “Is that really a question? The guy was outstanding. He was filthy. All of his pitches were perfect. Sometimes he tried to do a little too much. That’s when he got out of control a little bit. But other than that, you can’t ask no more.”

Montero then recalled a conversation he had with Giants slugger Buster Posey during the game: “Buster told me that he was one of the nastiest right-handers that he’s faced. I told him, ‘You know what? He’s fun to catch when he’s like that.’”

The Cubs' offense managed just two runs on Sunday, and Arrieta was responsible for producing one of them. With the score 1-0 in the second, he belted a stand-up triple off the wall in right field with one out and scored on a sacrifice fly by Addison Russell.

The impressive thing was most pitchers wouldn’t have even thought about legging out a triple. They would have been content with a double to conserve energy, but Arrieta busted out of the box and didn’t ease up until he cruised into third base. That meant Russell could drive him in with an out instead of needing a hit.

“You’re really happy that he thought three because he made it rather easily,” Maddon said. “But most pitchers – and this not anti-pitcher – they wouldn’t be going for three bases in that situation.”

That run proved crucial because it was the last one the Cubs would manage and gave Hector Rondon (19th save) a little wiggle room to escape a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the ninth inning to preserve the win – and the Cubs’ momentum.

“We’re playing really good baseball,” Arrieta said. “We’re good at turning the page and not worrying about yesterday. Each game is big for us because of the division we’re in. The two teams ahead of us, we know they’re not slowing down and we don’t intend to, either. What we have to do now is make it difficult for the guys ahead of us and continue to show we’re going to continue to put pressure on and not let up.”