NEW YORK – It has been a shocking turn of events. Once deemed the hottest pitcher on the planet, Jake Arrieta had his second consecutive subpar outing in the Chicago Cubs' 4-1 loss to the New York Mets in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series on Sunday night.
The first three batters of the night hit Arrieta hard. Daniel Murphy capped the string with yet another home run, one he hit practically off his shoes. Arrieta lasted five innings, giving up four runs for the second consecutive game.
“I put us in a big hole in the first,” Arrieta said. “One of those [that was] too hard to overcome.”
With the weight of a franchise on his back, Arrieta struggled again, this time showing a precipitous drop in velocity that affected his whole arsenal. According to ESPN Stats & Information tracking, Arrieta’s fastball averaged 93 mph on Sunday, his lowest since April 14. The right-hander said he’s fine physically and wouldn’t blame the cold temperatures -- Mets starter Noah Syndergaard's pitches were hitting 97 or 98 mph -- so the only conclusion can be fatigue as the innings pile up. Arrieta is one shy of 250 for the season, by far the most he has ever thrown.
“He’s human,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “He can get tired as well. I don’t want to make up any excuses, but that could be the case.”
What used to be a fastball at 95 or 96 mph with some zip dropped to the 92-94 range, and his offspeed stuff dropped along with it. Arrieta was asked about the dip in velocity.
“I don’t know,” he responded.
Neither did his manager.
“In the game there, if that [radar] gun was correct on the field, he might have been down a mile an hour or two, that's what I saw,” Cubs skipper Joe Maddon said. “And when that happens, the breaker, the commitment to the breaking ball is not as definite from the hitter's perspective, because they're able to see everything better.”
Maybe that’s why Murphy hit a curveball off the dirt for a two-run home run (or maybe it's that he’s just that hot). But Arrieta knows he dug himself a hole after Curtis Granderson and David Wright squared up for hits before Murphy went deep yet again.
“They took advantage of a couple balls elevated in the strike zone,” Arrieta said. “Didn’t do a good enough job of minimizing the mistakes.”
Cubs fans must be wondering, Why now? How can the pitcher who won 13 decisions in a row falter at the most important time? Last Monday’s four-run affair against St. Louis could have been chalked up to good hitting conditions due to warmer temperatures at Wrigley Field. But after Sunday’s game, you have to wonder where Arrieta’s head and arm are at right now.
Sunday brought temperatures in the mid-40s, but Arrieta wasn't able to take advantage. He simply hasn’t struggled like this in a long time. In fact, it had been 122 starts since he gave up three first-inning runs.
“I knew the high-end velocity wasn’t necessarily there tonight,” he said. “Threw quite a few changeups to offset that.”
With the Cubs losing both games in New York, Arrieta is hopeful he’ll get the ball again in Game 6, but first his teammates have work to do back at home. If it gets that far Arrieta will get another extra day of rest. Will it be enough to find the life again in his right arm, which dominated teams for so long? Nothing on Sunday looked like it had been for him.
“Everybody chases a lot, and they didn’t,” Montero said of the opposition. “I don’t know if it was the velocity because it's slower than normal and maybe they had more time to recognize [pitches].”
Near the end of his news conference Arrieta was asked if he was surprised by his shaky postseason performance. It didn’t take a long answer to sum up his frustration as well as those of fans who root for him and his team.
“I didn’t pitch well, so yeah,” Arrieta said.