The burden of halting the Cubs’ dream-shattering two-game free fall fell not on Jake Arrieta but on Jason Hammel, and he obliged with 6⅓ innings of stout pitching and the backing of three home runs in the Cubs’ 9-4 victory Friday over the Pirates.
Good in that it quelled the panic that enveloped the North Side after the Cubs dropped a doubleheader to the Padres, but bad if it restored the belief that .800 baseball is the team’s measuring stick for success this season.
After all, after Saturday’s game, the Cubs are 15-2 within their division and 11-1 against the Pirates, Cardinals and Nationals, who have similar designs on National League supremacy.
But .800 baseball is unheard of, even by teams bearing Mike Ditka’s blessing, which presumably was conferred on the Cubs during a dinner Joe Maddon had with Da Coach last week. Not much matters more hereabouts. The Bulls, Blackhawks and White Sox have combined for 10 championships in the 31 years since the Bears’ last one, but it’s Ditka and his ’85 roustabouts who still exemplify how Chicagoans like to feel about themselves.
The Cubs would have to play .800 ball at minimum, storm through a take-no-prisoners postseason unscathed and activate Dan Hampton along the way to change that.
Maddon’s disclosure of his man-date with Ditka was one of two ancillary Cubs stories invading the news cycle since Arrieta’s last start, a five-inning no-decision against the Nationals last Sunday in which he looked suspiciously human.
The other: How Stephen Strasburg signing a seven-year, $175 million agreement to stay in Washington and off the free-agent market will affect the Cubs’ negotiations with Arrieta. Never mind that the rest of this season and all of the next will be played before Arrieta’s future becomes an issue — let’s panic now!
Arrieta, as thoughtful off the field as he is focused and driven while pitching, inadvertently gave the story legs when he scoffed at the idea of a hometown discount. Surprised?
Strasburg isn’t the only Powerball-winning pitcher Arrieta has outperformed over the last two years. Moreover, he wasted three years of his career in Baltimore resisting the Orioles’ attempts to turn him into something he isn’t. Plus he’s 30, so the next contract he signs probably will be his last. Who can fault him for envisioning a whopper?
Hometown discount, my beard.
The Cubs have turned every nook and cranny of renovated Wrigley Field into a revenue stream, with more on the way as amenities within the surrounding footprint take shape. Their ticket prices, already among the highest in baseball, won’t be coming down as demand increases, and there’s no talk of a loyalty discount for fans who stuck with them through 286 losses from 2012 to 2014. Plans are in the works for a TV package that could elevate the Cubs to the elite level of the Yankees, Dodgers and Red Sox in baseball’s real game of moneyball.
Hometown discount? Other than the unquestionably max effort he puts forth every five days and the maniacal preparation that goes into each of his starts, Arrieta owes the Cubs nothing.
The “discount” notion might have originated with free-agent signees Jon Lester and Jason Heyward, who were said to have taken less money for the privilege of becoming Cubs. Lester got $155 million over six years, and Heyward will get $184 million over eight. Truly magnanimous of them.
With Arrieta on the mound, the deep-freeze matinee Saturday with the Pirates at Wrigley looked like a mismatch — he was 7-1 with a 1.50 ERA in 10 career starts against Pittsburgh, including a five-hit shutout in last season’s wild-card game.
He looked uncommonly vulnerable in the fourth inning — two runs scored on three sharp singles and a hit batter — but he was on cruise control thereafter, starting a double play to end the fourth and retiring the next 12 hitters, six on strikeouts. Anthony Rizzo won it for him with a three-run bomb off Jeff Locke in the bottom of the fourth, and Addison Russell defied the wind with an even longer blast two innings later. Cubs 8, Pirates 2.
Arrieta is 29-6 with a 1.67 ERA these last two seasons and 43-13 with a 2.15 ERA as a Cub. Yet there’s no hurry to sign him long-term. Pitching is an extremely high-risk proposition, even for a top-end, prime-of-his-career starter with Arrieta’s meticulous devotion to conditioning and nutrition. He may look indestructible, but so did Mark Prior.
Enjoy the show while it’s running. It’s the hottest thing north of Chris Sale.