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Jake Arrieta adds gem to his evolving excellence

CHICAGO -- When it comes to Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jake Arrieta, the questions keep evolving. Is he the Cubs’ ace? Is he the wild-card starter? Is he a Cy Young winner? Just how good can he be?

The answers so far? Yes. Yes. He’ll be in the top three, for sure. He’s working on it.

“I don’t know how good I can be,” Arrieta said after his latest masterpiece, pitching eight scoreless innings in a 2-0 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks. “That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”

The way he works, he'll probably find an answer. There was no hangover in his first start since throwing his first no-hitter Aug. 30 at Dodger Stadium. Arrieta gave up four hits -- three coming in the first two innings -- and no walks. He struck out seven. But he stopped celebrating himself days ago.

“Two days after, I was kind of sick of talking about it,” he said. “I was already watching video of Arizona, trying to figure out what I could do better against them this time as opposed to last time.”

Back on May 23 at Arizona, Arrieta gave up six runs, only three earned, in six innings. Those six runs were the most he has given up in a game all season. In six August starts, he gave up just four.

Arrieta’s bid for a second consecutive no-hitter ended with two outs in the first when Paul Goldschmidt singled to right. David Peralta moved him to third on a single, but Arrieta struck out Jarrod Saltalamacchia to end the inning. Arrieta said he was sick of the no-hitter talk after a couple days, but he wasn’t happy the pressure of a no-hitter was gone so early.

“I would have preferred to not give up any hits,” Arrieta said. “But those guys are good. Goldschmidt hit a really good pitch down and way to right field. I missed a spot to Peralta, he hit a ball up the middle. They had a base hit in the [second] and not another hit until the [seventh]. It was fun.”

As the playoffs beckon, Arrieta (18-6, 2.03 ERA) is getting better and better. He's 12-1 with 0.99 ERA over his past 15 starts, with the no-hitter sprinkled in, and hasn’t allowed an earned run in 29 innings over four starts. No Cub has won seven straight starts since Mark Prior did it in 2003.

Right now, he’s as good as any pitcher that manager Joe Maddon has had, including Cy Young winner David Price. He’s the best pitcher the Cubs have had since that 2003 version of Prior.

“It’s as good as you’re going to get on the major league level,” Maddon said of Arrieta’s tear right now.

Arrieta is a noted workout fanatic. You can watch him run in the outfield between starts, doing mountain climber exercises and the like. But he’s also got an attention to detail that takes him to another level.

For instance, Arrieta doesn’t throw a changeup too often, just about 4 percent of the time. With his fastball command and filthy breaking pitches, he doesn’t need to.

But on Saturday, the scouting report noted the Diamondbacks hitters will sit on his breaking pitches, so he was glad he had that pitch in his arsenal. He threw 11 changeups out of 116 total pitches, according to Brooks Baseball. A small number, to be sure, but important enough that he brought it up in his first answer in his postgame media session.

“As the game wore on, I started to mix some things up a little differently, use some different sequences, use the changeup quite a bit,” he said. “It’s something that I always work on, so when the time comes I’ll have a good enough feel for it to use it. I used it, i think, for all three outs in the fourth or fifth inning. It was nice to have comfortability with that today.”

It was the fourth inning: He struck out Goldschmidt and Saltalamacchia on changeups and got Peralta to ground out on one. The three pitches were 89, 90 and 91 mph, compared to his 96-mph fastball.

He threw only one more changeup for a strike, an A.J. Pollock strikeout in the sixth, but the fact that he was ready to use it is the kind of attention to detail that has turned Arrieta into a Cy Young candidate.

“He’s got command of both sides [of the plate] with his fastball, he’s got command of both sides with his fastball, he’s got command of both sides with his cutter, he’s got command of both sides with his changeup, he’s got command of both sides with his breaking ball,” catcher David Ross said. “It makes my job a lot easier.”

After giving up a single to lead off the second, he started a double play with a perfect leading throw to shortstop Addison Russell. After that, he retired 16 straight before Saltalamacchia doubled in the seventh.

The Cubs had only four hits. They scored one run on Ross’ bases-loaded groundout in the fourth and another on Dexter Fowler's 16th home run (extending his career high) in the fifth. But they played strong defense and Arrieta didn’t give up any unnecessary baserunnners.

This was his seventh start without a walk, the second one that lasted eight innings. Two others were complete games. He has struck out 197 batters and walked only 44 over 191 innings.

The conversation about which Cubs pitcher should start a likely wild-card game is over. Sorry, Jon Lester.

Now it’s whether or not Arrieta can pass Dodgers aces Clayton Kershaw (12-6, 2.18 ERA, 251 strikeouts) and Zack Greinke (15-3, 1.59 ERA, 0.85 WHIP) for the National League Cy Young Award.

“He’s right with them,” Maddon said. “With the criterion involved, and that’s going to be subjective based on who’s going to apply the votes, whatever. But you break him down right now, I know it’s his manager talking right now, it’s difficult to beat. There’s good competition. It’s going to be really interesting to watch. Several guys are deserved, but I think our guy is at the top.”