The Cubs have seven All-Stars and three World Series winners on their roster.
But it’s one of the players who has sniffed neither in his career who might have the most to say about whether the Cubs reach the lofty goals they’ve set for the rest of the summer and into the fall.
And if that sounds like an unfair burden, he says: Bring on that responsibility.
“All the responsibility,” says right-hander Jake Arrieta, whose career year has helped put the red-hot Cubs into playoff position in the National League with 46 games to play.
“I think that just comes with the territory of where I’m at now in my career. I came up with guys who had that role, and I wanted it. I wanted that role when I was in college; I wanted to be the Friday night starter.”
And after 3 ½ mercurial years for the Orioles as a fifth-round pick out of Texas Christian, Arrieta has found a communication base with pitching coach Chris Bosio since a July 2013 trade, a comfort zone with his new organization, and a new home among the elite pitchers in the National League.
And with that rarefied place comes a tone-setting, point-man role he had for championship teams through college and as a minor-league ace.
“That’s my mindset,” he said. “And now that I’m in that territory, I intend to do the same thing here.”
Jon Lester got the $155 million contract as a free agent and has made a significant impact on the Cubs’ offender-to-contender turnaround this season.
But Arrieta (14-6 with a 2.39 ERA) has emerged as the 95-mph, four-pitch, dominant ace who could put himself into the front end of the Cy Young race with a strong finish.
“He’s in an upper tier that I haven’t seen very much at this level,” said White Sox center fielder Adam Eaton after Arrieta beat the Sox Saturday for the second time this season.
Manager Joe Maddon has said repeatedly that Arrieta is still getting better and has another level left in his tank. Arrieta, 29, agrees, pointing at nuances involving holding runners and pitch selection/efficiency.
But nobody argues with what Arrieta has been able to accomplish since becoming a Cub (including a 28-13 record and 2.62 ERA in 58 starts).
“Buster [Posey] told me he’s one of the nastiest he’s faced,” catcher Miguel Montero said after Arrieta beat Posey’s Giants 2-0 two starts ago.
Arrieta figures to have at least eight starts left this season as the Cubs chase the Pirates and Cardinals in the National League Central and on the league playoff-berth ladder.
If his performance level holds – he has a 1.35 ERA in his last 11 starts – it should go a long way toward climbing that ladder. If not toward a Cy Young candidacy – something he doesn’t deny has crossed his mind.
“We all started playing this game as kids and we saw who was winning Cy Youngs, and we saw the Nolan Ryan no-hitters, and everybody was like, `Damn, I want to do that one day,’ “ he said. “Now I’m at that level, I’ve put myself in position to accomplish those kinds of things, and, yeah, it’s natural to think about it. But my motivation isn’t to win a Cy Young.
“My motivation is to be as good as I can be, and I don’t even now what that is.”
He already has reached a career high in innings pitched (162), and his workload is something Maddon said the club is monitoring as they head down the stretch. It’s part of why he was lifted at 105 pitches two outs into the seventh inning Saturday after allowing only his fifth hit of the game.
But Arrieta, who might be the most fitness-minded player on the roster, seems confident in his ability to sail past the 200-inning mark.
And he’s even more certain about the staying power of the elite level he’s found as a Cub.
“You can take that to the bank,” he said.