Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta might be real wild card in NLDS

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‘‘We have Jon Lester, then Kyle, then Jake, then John Lackey,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said Tuesday at Wrigley Field.

He was giving the order of his starting pitchers for the playoffs.

Thus, we have an interesting anomaly: Last year’s Cy Young Award winner, a large, intimidating, fully-bearded man who’s uninjured and seemingly fit, is the third best pitcher on this team.

Because Jake is Jake Arrieta, who finished this year with an 18-8 record and a 3.10 ERA, giving up just above one walk or hit per inning pitched. That’s some fine stuff.

And in last year’s Cy Young season, he finished an amazing 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA and a WHIP of .865. In the last half of 2015, he had what’s been called the greatest run of any pitcher ever, throwing down a 0.75 ERA.

Want a detail? From Aug. 1, 2015, through his shutout of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the playoff wild-card game on Oct. 7, his ERA was a ridiculous 0.37. It’s fair to say the world had never seen pitching like that.

But that was last year. And what can a guy do when his teammates — Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Lackey, plus himself — come out of the 2016 regular season with a combined 2.96 ERA, which is lower than any single pitcher’s ERA in the entire American League?

Not much.

Except he can worry that he’s not the big dog anymore, not the bell cow with the stuff so crazy he’s guaranteed to stop any losing streak, to win any game that needs winning.

To stay fresh, Arrieta pitched two innings in a simulated game at Wrigley Field on Tuesday, under an autumn blue sky, with nobody else in the park but a couple dozen media members clustered behind the screen in back of home plate.

He threw some smoke — though there was no radar gun to say just how fast — and he seemed sharp. He split time with Lackey until the relievers came on, and in the second “inning,” big Jake did this to his mates: got Tommy La Stella to fly to center, struck out Willson Contreras, got Matt Szczur to ground out to third, then fanned Chris Coghlan, Albert Almora and Javy Baez. Six outs and done.

But what did it mean?

Apparently, Arrieta’s still just the third best pitcher on the staff. And that might chap him a little. Wouldn’t it bug you, if you had the big ego needed to take the ball and stand on the hill and stare down the meanest hitters in the league?

And you knew not long ago you were the best ever on the Cubs?

Not only will Arrieta pitch third, he’ll not get a home game during the divisional series against either the New York Mets or San Francisco Giants. Not only that, but the wild card starters for the Mets and Giants, who play Wednesday — Noah Syndergaard and Madison Bumgarner — are the aces of their staffs, and one or the other will face Arrieta on home turf in Game  3. That’s not fun.

There’s more. Arrieta lost Game  2 of the NLCS at the Mets’ field last year, and he’s 1-2 in four games as a Cubs starter there. In his career, he has started five games at Citi Field, going 1-3 with a 3.62 ERA.

On the other hand, in the last two seasons, he’s 6-0 with a 0.20 ERA in California against the Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres.

So he is, in a sense, a wild card himself. One wonders how he’ll rise to the occasion. One wonders if he’ll be angry or intense, scattered or focused.

In his last start, an 8-4 loss in Pittsburgh, Arrieta was ticked off with Maddon’s resting of players and switching others in and out.

“It felt like a spring training game from the get-go,” he said. That’s what you say when you give up 10 hits and seven earned runs in five innings, moving your final ERA from 2.85 to 3.10.

“You saw the last three games — Jon Lester didn’t have his best game, Kyle did not have his best game,” Maddon said. “It’s just a function of the time of the year, the fact that we’re going into this situation in both a good and an awkward way” due to clinching so early.

What Arrieta does in Game 3 could be critical. It could be the clinching win. Or the last loss of a sweep. Or neither.

What’s for sure is the Cubs won’t get to the Promised Land without him. Hope he knows that above all.

Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.

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