Arrieta isn’t his ’15 self, but promises ‘trouble’ for NLDS foe

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Wednesday night wasn’t much fun for Jake Arrieta. Can he find his way back to top form in the playoffs? (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH — Sooner or later, even the most sanguine, starry-eyed Cubs fans are going to have to come around and accept it.

The postseason is nigh, but the Jake Arrieta of 2015 isn’t here.

Those words probably could’ve been written after Arrieta’s previous start against the Pirates. That was Aug. 29 at Wrigley Field, and it was the second straight time the Pirates hit him hard for six earned runs.

Then came Wednesday — Arrieta’s final regular-season start — when Pittsburgh did itself one better by lighting into the reigning N.L. Cy Young winner for seven.

Oof. That’ll leave a mark.

It was the first time in 72 starts, dating back to 2014, that Arrieta surrendered that many earned runs. Not to mention the first time in 72 starts that he gave up 10 hits.

More damaging that that, the Bucs’ big night catapulted Arrieta’s ERA from 2.85 to 3.10 — his first time all season in the threes — and left him less than three innings shy of 200. It’s a far cry from the 1.77 ERA and 229 innings he gave the Cubs in 2015.

Arrieta’s 18-8 record and 11 road victories still look mighty good, but enough about his numbers, right? The next time he takes the mound, the stakes will be huge.

“We’re moving on. We’ll prepare for the next one,” said Arrieta. “I don’t like giving up seven runs. I’m pissed about that. But moving forward, everything is fine.”

It helps that Arrieta can bank on the Cubs putting their best team on the field in the playoffs. Manager Joe Maddon’s decision to pull veteran catcher Miguel Montero for rookie Willson Contreras after the fourth inning Wednesday didn’t play well with Arrieta.

“Switching catchers just felt like we were trying to do a little too much instead of win a ballgame,” he said.

For Maddon, the regular-season-ending road trip has been about lining up his pitching staff just so and keeping his players not only sharp, but fresh. But starting pitchers want to win — imagine that — and Arrieta knew going in that Maddon planned to have the turnstiles going with his reserve position players.

“It felt like a spring training game from the get-go,” Arrieta said.

Prior to the game, Maddon waxed fancifully about where Arrieta might be headed. The ace version of Arrieta had prowled the mound in his previous start, a seven-inning, no-run gem against the Cardinals.

“This might sound nuts,” Maddon said, “but I think he might be peaking at the right time.”

In hindsight, yes, that does sound a little nuts. Four of Arrieta’s last six starts have been subpar by his standards. He goes into the postseason not only not “peaking,” but clearly being the Cubs’ third-best pitcher.

Not that that’s such a bad thing. Let’s be real here: Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks have made pretty much every other pitcher in baseball pale in comparison in 2016. They have the top two ERAs in the game and are the top two candidates for the Cy Young.

Arrieta needn’t apologize for failing to wedge his way into that precious space.

“My season was good,” he said. “I would’ve liked to be better, obviously, but we are where we are because of our [starting staff].”

There are a whole lot of Nos. 1 and 2 starters around the league who’d love to trade regular-season numbers with Arrieta. The Cubs’ former ace might not be quite the same pitcher this time around, but let it be noted that his confidence is in top form.

“Whoever I face in the first round,” he said, “they’re going to be in trouble.”

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

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