PHILADELPHIA – Two days after teammate Jon Lester called him the best pitcher in baseball, Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta added another eight innings to what has become a season for the ages in Cubs pitching.
Another eight innings that backs up the Cubs’ decision to tab Arrieta over Lester for a likely one-game wild-card game against Pittsburgh.
In beating the Phillies 5-1 in the opener of a doubleheader at Citizens Bank Park Friday night, Arrieta (19-6) lowered his ERA to 1.99, second in the majors to Zack Greinke (1.68) – and tightened the race for National League Cy Young.
Greinke (16-3) has been the presumptive favorite since his 8-2, 1.39 first-half.
But Arrieta and Greinke’s Dodgers teammate Clayton Kershaw might be the best second-half pitchers in the game – and two of the biggest reasons the Dodgers and Cubs have pulled away in their respective playoff races.
Arrieta has four starts left to finish making his case for the Cubs’ first Cy Young since Greg Maddux in 1992.
“I definitely believe our guy deserves it, no question,” Maddon said. “I’ve seen Greinke pitch; I know he’s really good. If you watch Jake in person it’s pretty spectacular to watch.
“I don’t even know what innings pitched looks like; I don’t know what all that other stuff looks like – strikeouts, whatever. I just see a dominant, right-handed starter.”
In the last 40 years, only six pitchers have had ERAs under 2.00 in a non-strike season (Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez and Kershaw each doing it twice). And no Cub has won 20 games since Jon Lieber in 2001 – a feat that has eluded elite pitchers such as Felix Hernandez, Cole Hamels, Madison Bumgarner and Greinke.
Say what you want about the value of wins as a pitching stat, but 20 wins in an age of five-man rotations and pitch counts at least suggests durability and consistent, high performance.
“Not many guys to it. It’s hard to do,” said Arrieta, who has 204 strikeouts and whose career-high innings count has reached 199. “There’s so many variables that have to add up for that to happen. You have to pitch well, your team has to get you runs, you have to paly good defense, you can’t have many off night.
“It means that consistently you’re going out there and you’re doing things the right way, or as you intend to do. So I think it speaks to consistency, of a competitive nature of not giving in regardless of the situation and trying to win for the team.”
Those qualities in Arrieta, in turn, speak to his qualifications for any must-win game in October – regardless of the fact he has never pitched in the playoffs.
“I think about pitching in October every day,” he said. “I know it’s a different stage. There’s people waving towels, there’s more people [in attendance]. But [the game’s] the same.
“I saw it in Baltimore. It’s a crazy atmosphere, but whether there’s 45,000 or 50,000 or 10,000 [fans], it doesn’t’ make what I have to do any different.”
Arrieta’s been the hottest pitcher in the game over the past 16 starts dating to his shutout of the Twins in Minnesota – a game Maddon suggests turned his season and gave him the “taste of blood in the water.”
Starting with that game in Minnesota, Arrieta has gone 13-1 with a 1.00 ERA and 115 strikeouts in 117 innings.
The Dodgers’ two Cy Young candidates?
Greinke (14 starts): 11-1, 1.56, 91 in 98 innings.
Kershaw (14): 8-2, 1.17, 137 in 108.
Arrieta downplays the effect of a single game such as the Minnesota gem, saying his focus has been on building each start and learning from each game.
But he has a pretty good idea why he’s been able to put together the kind of consistent run that has produced more consecutive quality starts (16) than any Cub pitcher in 98 years.
“Nothing fazes me,” he said. “Men on base, walks, homers. Deal with it and move forward.”
Into October. With Cy Young support or not.
“My vote’s for Jake,” Maddon said. “Those other guys are really good. It should be an interesting conversation, no question. It’s going to be hard to argue against any of the trinity.”