CHICAGO -- Pitching under a blood moon, Chicago Cubs right-handed ace Jake Arrieta didn’t change into some kind of beast. He was his normal every-five-days self on Sunday night, which is to say he was almost perfect, almost unhittable and the best pitcher in baseball.
He is a creature of habit.
It is no longer a surprise when Arrieta is flirting with a perfect game or a no-hitter late into a game. It is almost expected. He has reached another plane of pitching.
So while Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw is a future Hall of Famer and his teammate Zack Greinke is a unique character with a 1.65 ERA, Arrieta should be the National League Cy Young Award winner. One would hope every NL Cy Young voter was watching him carve up the Pittsburgh Pirates 4-0 in another nationally televised horror film.
“There’s a lot there that voters really have to consider when they look at this fella,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.
Arrieta is putting up second-half numbers that belong in the deadball eras. He is Cy Young and Bob Gibson with a hipster lumberjack beard.
“He’s from another planet, man,” Cubs catcher Miguel Montero said.
Arrieta (21-6, 1.82 ERA) took a perfect game into the seventh inning before allowing a single. He was so dominant, Pirates hitters could barely make solid contact. He gave up just one hit and hit one batter in seven innings. He threw just 84 pitches and struck out nine. In five starts against the Pirates, arguably the best team in the National League, his ERA is 0.75.
There is an argument about who should win the Cy Young because there are three worthy candidates. There’s always an argument, but the winner is Arrieta. I was on the Greinke bandwagon until recently, and I respect Kershaw’s everyday greatness, but Arrieta has won me over the same way he has beaten up teams the past two months -- with tenacity and consistency.
“I know the other guys are really good and I know I’m his manager,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “But I’ve never seen anything like that and nobody else has either. That would normally equal a pretty good reward.”
Pirates leadoff hitter Gregory Polanco ruined Arrieta’s chances of a second no-hitter this season when he started the seventh with a sharp single to left. Two batters later, Arrieta hit Andrew McCutchen on the arm and pounded his glove in anger. He then got Aramis Ramirez to hit into a double play to end the inning.
But his night was over. Maddon said when he approached Arrieta to let him know he was done, he prefaced his words by saying, “You’re going to hate me, but that’s going to be it. He said, ‘I’m not going to hate you.’”
Arrieta remembers it slightly different.
“Yeah, he told me, ‘Don’t hate me,’” Arrieta said. “I told him, ‘I don’t want to hate you. Don’t do it.’ But I knew that there was a good chance of something like that happening at that point in the game. So no issue with that at all.”
We’ve come to a point where we ask Arrieta to go over a single he gave up. A single!
“It wasn’t a bad pitch,” he said. “[Polanco] has got really good coverage off the plate away. The height of it was a little elevated; if it was down a little bit, I might have had him. A good piece of hitting on his part.”
Arrieta dominated with his two best pitches. According to Brooks Baseball research, he threw his sinker 45 percent of the time and his cutter-slider hybrid 31 percent. Typically, he throws those two pitches a combined 55 percent.
A Cubs outfielder didn’t have to make a play until the top of the sixth, when Pedro Alvarez flied out to Kyle Schwarber in left. Dexter Fowler and Jorge Soler could have watched the game from the bleachers.
Maddon said he enjoys watching hitters’ reactions during their at-bats against Arrieta. Montero said, “They really can’t say much. It’s pretty much like, ‘Let’s see if I get lucky and I hit this ball.’”
All weekend long, the Pirates, who won the first two games of this series, didn’t want to talk about a potential wild-card game against Arrieta. The St. Louis Cardinals are coming to Pittsburgh for a three-game series starting Monday. Pittsburgh is just three games behind them in the race for the NL Central title.
You would think avoiding Arrieta in a one-and-done scenario would be inspiration enough to sweep St. Louis. But Arrieta against Gerrit Cole in a winner-take-all game is not only what the people want, the unfairness of it all might be enough to sway baseball into making the wild-card game a best-of-three series.
How harsh would it be for the second-best team in baseball to face Arrieta to advance?
Since August began, he has been impossibly good. Greinke has been fantastic all season, but voters should weigh how dominant Arrieta has been when it really counts. At the end of July the Cubs were just eight games over .500 and trailing San Francisco for the second wild card. Now they’re 90-65 and have already clinched a playoff berth.
At the All-Star break, Arrieta had a 2.66 ERA. At the end of July, it was 2.62. Now it’s 1.82.
How is that possible? In 11 starts from Aug. 4 through Sunday, his ERA is 0.44. He has given up four earned runs (and seven runs total) in 82⅓ innings. He has given up 39 hits and 14 walks, while striking out 82.
“What he’s done in this second half, I guess, is unparalleled,” Maddon said. “Nobody’s ever seen it. I can’t say I haven’t seen it, because no one has seen it.”
I could list all of his superlatives, and the Cubs are planning on strafing the media with Arrieta factoids this week, but it would take all night. I’m on a word count with the playoffs approaching.
But here are a few to gloss over. He’s 12-1 with a 1.68 ERA on the road, highlighted by his Aug. 30 no-hitter at Dodger Stadium. Add this game and that’s one hit in 16 scoreless innings on Sunday Night Baseball, the big stage.
If he finishes the season with an ERA under 2.00, he’ll be the first Cubs pitcher to do so since Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1920. Most of the Wrigley Field ushers weren’t even born back then. In his past 19 starts, his ERA is 0.89.
But does he know that home runs don’t count for the voting? Arrieta gave himself some run support in the second inning with a homer to right field, his second of the season. The crowd, as you might expect, went crazy, forcing Arrieta to come out for a curtain call.
He got a standing ovation before his second at-bat while one husky voice yelled, “MVP! MVP! MVP!” Arrieta struck out looking, earning plate umpire Rob Drake some boos. But in his third at-bat, he nearly hit another home run; McCutchen caught the deep fly ball at the wall in left-center.
“I knew it had a chance,” he said. “I knew it was going to be close. I got two pitches in the one spot that shouldn’t throw me. Normally anything outside of that tiny little area I’m swinging and missing.”
Arrieta said he talks about the Cy Young only late at night when no one is around.
“At home with the family, when the kids are in bed, [his wife] Brittany and I, we’ll talk about things like that,” he said. “‘What if?’ The excitement that goes along with things like that. But it’s pretty short-lived for the moment because we’ve got a lot on our plate, some big tasks at hand. I think those deserves more focus than the other things.”
Would you like a sportswriter's review of that statement? I think that Arrieta thinks he’s the Cy Young winner, all day, every day of every week.
“At this point,” Montero said, “I don’t think anybody doubts this guy’s confidence on the mound. He’s got a chip on his shoulder and that’s great. Every time he takes the mound, he knows the other guys are not going to do anything to him.”