Like everything in Wrigleyville these days, building right-hander Jake Arrieta into a reliable starter will be a process.
Arrieta returned to the mound Saturday against the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field, making his season debut after coming into spring training with shoulder tightness and being put on the disabled list March 30.
Understandably, he was on a pitch count in the Cubs’ 3-0 victory. He said he paid no attention to it.
‘‘It’s not hard at all, really,’’ he said of being on a pitch count. ‘‘You just take the ball until they take it from you and just continue to try to get outs. Whether it was 80 pitches or 100, you can’t really focus on that at all because then you limit yourself.’’
The limitations were up to Cubs manager Rick Renteria, who pulled Arrieta after 51/3 innings. But the Cubs couldn’t have wished for a better outing.
Arrieta held the Cardinals scoreless, gave up four hits — none for extra bases — and struck out seven.
Most important, he never lost command. He said the key was establishing his offspeed pitches early. Of his 82 pitches, 56 were strikes. After the second inning, he didn’t allow a runner to reach second.
Junior Lake’s two-run homer in the sixth and Anthony Rizzo’s solo shot in the eighth accounted for all the scoring.
Arrieta had the opportunity to establish some endurance in his rehab starts. But he said some two weeks ago that those starts never would be a true barometer of his recovery. He needed Saturday, facing seasoned hitters, as a gauge.
‘‘It didn’t look like he lost anything,’’ Renteria said. ‘‘I thought he maintained his strength throughout. But again, coming back from such an extended recovery, we were going to make sure we took care of him.’’
They will continue to do so. Arrieta likely will see his pitch count increase, but it still will be capped.
‘‘We were very, very conscious of this being his first outing after recovering,’’ Renteria said. ‘‘I don’t think anybody’s going to want to push the envelope. I think we were going to be very guarded, and we were.’’
Strangely enough, so was Arrieta — not necessarily about increasing his workload but when asked how to describe his outing. He said it wasn’t anything other than his first outing.
‘‘[I’m going to] try to approach each outing as aware and competitive as possible,’’ Arrieta said. ‘‘Acquire all the information, put the game plan together and try to get the guys on the other team out.”
For the Cubs to be at all competitive, they’ll need to establish a deep rotation. Establishing Arrieta as a reliable starter will be paramount in that effort.