MESA, Ariz. — Minutes after his final Cactus League start Tuesday, someone asked Jake Arrieta if he had been bombarded with remedies for his right thumb blister — old wives’ tales or homeopathic remedies or mystery goo claiming to make it go away.
“There’s no blister anymore,” he said coldly. “It’s fine. Everything’s good.”
The crack in the Cubs ace’s thumb had vanished — poof! — like a captured spy. Arrieta’s intense stare made it seem like sheer will — not the night-time Neosporin soak hours after he left Thursday’s game — was what vanquished the Cubs’ greatest threat to springtime bliss.
His thumb looked healed Tuesday, when Arrieta allowed one run on two hits in five innings in a 9-5 win. He threw 102 pitches, striking out five and walking two.
The Athletics’ lone run against the reigning National League Cy Young winner came in the first inning, when Arrieta walked former teammate Chris Coghlan, who stole second and scored on Billy Butler’s two-out double.
Arrieta liked how he was able to adjust his timing from then on — namely, pitching inside to lefties and fooling hitters with a changeup.
“I need to be to be more aggressive early, and sharpen up a couple things,” he said. “But I like where I’m at going into our first game.”
He’ll start Opening Day on Monday.
“It means something special to everybody — not only myself but my team behind me,” he said. “Everybody’s been waiting for this moment. It’s approaching fast. It’s finally here. To be the guy on the mound for the first one is something special.”
The hype, perhaps, has never been greater for a Cubs season to start.
No one carries those expectations more, and on broader shoulders, than Arrieta.
“I don’t think we pay much attention to it,” Arrieta said. “We have high expectations for ourselves. Within the team we know that everybody expects big things for us. We do as well. I think we don’t harp too much on that.”
The goal was to be ready — and healthy — on Day 1.
“That’s the thing on the front of all our minds, versus the expectations,” he said.
“We know we have some big shoes to fill this year, based on what we were able to do last year, but I think we can do that pretty well.”
Only a fool would expect Arrieta to start as well as he finished last year — his 0.41 ERA from Aug. 1 on is the lowest in the history of baseball — but first baseman Anthony Rizzo said the bar’s been set.
“He expects it out of himself, I know that,” Rizzo said. “Anything less will be disappointing for him, I know that.”
Rizzo’s right leg was whacked by diving base runner Andrew Lambo in the fourth inning after a bad Miguel Montero snap throw. Rizzo left the game after the inning, but said later the exit was planned.
Another injury crisis seemingly avoided.
“After the first inning he really settled down and cruised like he always does,” said Rizzo, who played songs on a keyboard for his teammates earlier in the day. “He’ll be ready.
“It’s different — this is all different. It’s hard to get the juices flowing right now at the end of spring like it will be in a few days.”
Manager Joe Maddon bowed earlier in camp not to over-work his ace in the spring, and he didn’t. He’s confident Arrieta is ready for Monday.
The opener is special, but it’s not everything. The second half, as Arrieta proved, takes precedence.
“After that game’s over, then it’s 161 games left on the schedule to fight through as a team,” Arrieta said. “Any time you get the honor of being the Opening Day starter it is special, but it’s short-lived.
“Because once that’s over, it’s back to business.”
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