Jake Arrieta Watch heats up, for Cy Young, playoffs — and mounting workload

If Jake Arrieta is having any issues blowing past his career-high season workload by 40 innings this year – with two starts and the playoffs to come — the Cubs’ ace is showing little sign of it.

In fact, he’s pitched at least eight innings without allowing more than an earned run in each of his last five starts, the first pitcher to do that in a five-start span since Roger Clemens in 1997 – the first this late in the season since Orel “Bulldog” Hershiser in 1988.

“Don’t worry about the innings,” Arrieta said with a derisive chuckle more than a week before Tuesday’s major-league-leading third shutout of the season. “It doesn’t matter. I’m not a 20-year-old baby.”

But after allowing Arrieta to throw a season-high 123 pitches in Tuesday night’s 4-0 victory, Cubs manager Joe Maddon acknowledge the challenge he faces balancing Arrieta’s rarefied dominance and apparent strength against a fast-climbing workload level he’s never experienced.

It’s a balancing act that could become more significant if the Cubs get past an anticipated wild-card game against Pittsburgh and a deeper foray into October

Then there’s the issue of Arrieta’s shot at the Cy Young Award, which may have taken a sizeable leap forward with news that frontrunner Zack Greinke was scratched from Wednesday’s start because of a calf injury.

“It’s uncharted territory,” Maddon said of an innings load he intends to monitor closely the next two starts – especially after Tuesday’s relatively big count.

“And it’s all this stuff that’s very prominent in the news right now regarding pitchers and innings pitched,” the manager said. “The fact that he’s not in his early 20s, the fact that he’s been pitching for a while, I think separates him a little bit – actually a lot. Then combine that with his workout regimen, what kind of shape he’s in.

Arrieta, 29, reached 216 innings Tuesday. His career high before this season was 176 2/3 innings, including 20 during a minor-league rehab assignment.

He might be the best-conditioned player on the team, a workhorse-in-the-making who spent 97 big-league starts before this year building to this career moment.

But if the Cubs do what they hope over the next six weeks, he could have six to nine starts left.

“Believe me, I’m aware of pitch counts,” Maddon said. “I always have been. But my bet is that this guy’s going to be fine. He’s a different animal. And we’ll see how it plays out.”

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