Anybody want to face this guy in a Game 1 in October? Or a Game 7?
Or a win-or-go-home wild-card game in Pittsburgh two weeks from Wednesday?
After a brief interruption for a no-decision last week, Cubs’ ace Jake Arrieta continued his second-half steamroll of the National League on Tuesday night – beating the Milwaukee Brewers 4-0 at Wrigley Field to become the Cubs’ first 20-game winner since Jon Lieber 14 years ago.
“When a guy gets that opportunity and eventually does that, that’s something you can never take way from him,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of the increasingly rare 20-win season in an age of five-man rotations and pitch counts.
“I know this: 20 years from now when he comes back for the reunion of the 2015 team, and he stands out on that line, and Arrieta was a 20-game winner, it means something. It definitely means something.”
“I don’t know really,” said Arrieta (20-6) – whose only loss in more than two months took a Cole Hamels no-hitter pull off. “It just means I’m putting my team in positions to win ballgames. That’s our goal, to try to pile on as many as we can, especially with where we’re at in the season. Wins now at this time are more important than ever.”
The Cubs need only three more in their final 11 games – without help – to clinch their first playoff berth in seven years, thanks in part to a lengthy, historic, very active streak of dominance by Arrieta that has coincided with the Cubs’ surge toward a 90-win season.
That’s part of the case Maddon makes for the majors’ first 20-game winner to win the Cy Young over ERA leader Zack Greinke – a “Bob Gibson-esque” 10-1 run since the All-Star break that includes an 0.86 ERA with two starts left that would set a post-break major-league record.
“I know the results have been good, but I don’t dwell on it for too long because tomorrow I’m getting ready for Pittsburgh,” Arrieta said, referring to his next start Sunday. “I’m fortunate enough to be in situations where the team’s scoring runs, I’m pitching well, and the wins add up. It’s just one of those things that doesn’t happen often, but you try to appreciate when they do.”
Arrieta’s 20th came just four starts after a no-hitter in Los Angeles and looked almost as dominant. He becomes just the second 20-game winner for the Cubs in 23 years (Greg Maddux, 1992) – just the seventh in the last half-century.
Arrieta gave up a double to Scooter Gennett leading off the game, stranded him at third, allowed only two infield singles and a walk the rest of the way and struck out 11.
Rookie Kris Bryant provided most of the support with a two-run homer in the third — his 26th homer, breaking Billy Williams’ 54-year-old franchise rookie record — and a run-scoring double in the eighth that pushed his RBI total to 98.
By the time Arrieta was two strikeouts into retiring the side in the ninth, the full-house crowd at Wrigley was on its feet in deafening support.
“They were into it from the first pitch,” said Arrieta, who lowered his season ERA to 1.88 – second in the majors to Greinke (1.65). “That’s what makes playing this game so much fun, playing in front of your home crowd in a city like Chicago.”
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).
Maddon, conscious of Arrieta’s career-high 216 innings and postseason plans, said if not for the significance of the moment, Arrieta would not have been given the chance to finish his major-league-leading third shutout.
Even with the weight of the moment, Maddon would have gone to the bullpen had the Cubs scored one more run in the eighth, the manager said.
“It could have gone either way. I could have easily come out after eight, with all the factors in place,” said Arrieta, who finished with a season-high 123 pitches. “But he allowed me to go back out there and finish in the ninth, and that’s something you love to see from your manager.”
Arrieta is the 27th Cubs pitcher to win 20 – just the fifth time it’s been done by a Cub in the last 38 years.
Historic? Arrieta, who is looking more like every playoff team’s worst nightmare matchup with every start, suddenly has as many career 20-win seasons as Mike Mussine, CC Sabathia, Justin Verlander or Max Scherzer.
Among the All-Stars and Cy Young winners who haven’t won 20: Greinke, Felix Hernandez, Hamels, Madison Bumgarner and Jake Peavy.
“Historically, you always look at the 20-game winners and what that means,” Maddon said of the once-sexy benchmark that has fallen out of favor in an age of more refined metrics to measure performance. “I know in one sense it doesn’t really mean as much as people think. On a personal level and historically, there is a significance.”
It’s a feat Arrieta acknowledged to a standing ovation after getting Khris Davis to ground out to end the game, doffing his cap – and getting an ice-bucket shower from teammates, who mobbed him near the dugout after a brief postgame TV interview.
Arrieta has two regular season starts left, Sunday against the Pirates and then the final weekend of the season in Milwaukee, likely with strict pitch limits because of Tuesday’s workload, and what comes next:
Another date with the Pirates and a long to-do list in October.
“Maybe this winter, sitting in Austin, Texas, in some pub, he might let out a nice holler about the whole thing,” Maddon said. “It’s quite an accomplishment, especially the way he’s doing it. It’s been pretty remarkable to watch.”
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