PITTSBURGH -- We’ll get to some good news in a few moments, but there is so much bad going on with the Chicago Cubs right now it’s hard to know where to start.
How about with Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, who thought he made strides on Friday night against the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team he has dominated over the past two years. His manager and catcher thought the same as well. Of course his final stat line might say something different: six-plus innings, nine hits, one walk, six earned runs. His night included two home runs early in the game.
“Got punched in the mouth in the second,” Arrieta said after the 8-4 loss. “That was a big blow.”
But he did settle down, retiring 10 of 12 in the middle innings, and slowly the Cubs climbed back into the game thanks to two home runs. Miguel Montero tied the contest 3-3 in the sixth with a two-run homer, then a solo shot by Anthony Rizzo put them ahead 4-3 in the seventh.
And this time Arrieta’s pitch count wasn’t getting the best of him. He marched out for the seventh inning having thrown only 75 pitches. This was finally his game to perhaps complete or at least get to the eight or ninth inning. It was in his hands -- then it wasn’t.
“That was the point where I needed to throw up a zero,” Arrieta said. “They made it difficult for me.”
His lone walk of the night would come back to bite him, as pinch-hitter Adam Frazier took a close pitch that was ruled ball four to lead off the seventh. Then the wheels came off, just as they have for the Cubs for nearly a month now. One bad moment followed another, from a player -- Josh Bell -- earning a hit on the first pitch he’s ever seen in the big leagues, to Rizzo throwing a ball away at first base, which opened the floodgates for a decisive four-run inning by the Pirates.
“When you’re not able to score runs like we had been, everything else that’s a negative is magnified,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “We’re unable to play through our mistakes right now, where at the beginning of the year we did. Our defense was [earlier in the season] air-tight. No excuses -- we have to do better.”
The Cubs have to do a lot better. They’re losing to bad teams and good ones alike. They’re blowing leads and wasting comebacks. Their starters are struggling, as is their bullpen. And they’re not getting anywhere near the clutch hits they previously were used to. Coming into Friday night, since Dexter Fowler went down in mid-June with an injury, the Cubs were tied with the New York Yankees for lowest batting average (.190) with men in scoring position.
“Before, everything was pretty,” Montero said. “Now, everything is ugly. It’s baseball -- you get a lot of ups and downs.”
Oh, it’s ugly, all right. So much so that panic among fans is becoming more commonplace. Consider this: According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Cubs had won Arrieta’s past 28 starts where he’s thrown at least one pitch with a lead. That ended in the fateful seventh inning on Friday, where a 4-3 advantage turned into an 8-4 deficit quickly. Arrieta was asked where his level of frustration resided.
“I don’t know where Low-A [minors] is, but maybe I can go there and work on some stuff,” he said sarcastically. “I’m good. It’s not ideal, but I like what I do in between starts. The stuff is fine, just have to be better.”
His stuff is OK, but not good enough. The slider he hung to Sean Rodriguez for a home run in the second inning was a pitch he never threw in the second half last year. In fact, later in the game he threw the same pitch and the movement was Arrieta circa 2015 -- Rodriguez swung and missed. But those pitches are less common than they used to be. So as his first half comes to an end, the question is about the future: Can Arrieta return to elite form and shoulder the load in the second half?
“I think our whole staff feels that way,” Arrieta said. “We’ve been kind of in a lull for the past two weeks.”
Maddon’s take: “Last year we saw him nailing edges all the time. Breaking balls whenever he wanted to. This year, he just doesn’t have that same command.
“The work is in there, the dedication is there, it’s just not coming out. I would just be fabricating a reason. I don’t know. I don’t have a solid answer for you.”
Arrieta may have lost his chance to start the All-Star Game as his ERA rose to a more pedestrian -- for him, at least -- 2.68. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe he can go to San Diego and regroup without the weight of being Jake Arrieta on his back.
As for the Cubs, their sloppy play has led to a 9-16 record over their past 25 games, and their NL Central lead has shrunk to 7½ games over the Pirates. They insist it’s a “snapshot” of their season, not a telling sign.
With each loss it certainly feels more telling, but history can be a teacher. So, here, finally, is the good news: According to research by the Elias Sports Bureau, the most recent 100-win team -- the Cubs are still about on that pace -- to go 9-16 over a 25-game span was the 2003 Yankees. They at least went on to play in the World Series, falling to the Marlins in six games.
Can that calm your nerves, Cubs fans? Is that enough to keep you thinking positive during such a wretched time of the season? The Cubs keep thinking positive. Maybe everyone else should as well.
“I thought today was going to be a win,” Montero said.
At some point, he’ll be right again.