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Even with Jake Arrieta off his game, Cubs find a way to win

Cubs starter Jake Arrieta fires against the Nationals on Sunday at Wrigley Field. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

With no outs in the fifth inning and Jake Arrieta on the mound, a reliever stood up in the Cubs’ bullpen Sunday, pulled off his jacket and started loosening his arm. It was like seeing an animal previously thought to be extinct doing tai chi.

Emergency help for Jake? Jake never needs emergency help.

When it was Arrieta’s turn to bat to start the Cubs’ half of the fifth, manager Joe Maddon sent in Ryan Kalish to pinch-hit. On a halting, disordered day full of errors and wild pitches, it was the strongest indication that the planet had been knocked off its axis.

Oh, and the Cubs won.

If this is the season in which a century-plus of futility ends, please remember Sunday’s 4-3, 13-inning victory over the Nationals as a contributing factor. Remember it not for aesthetic reasons, because this one wasn’t a natural beauty. Remember it for the way the best team in baseball found a way to win a game it had no business winning. The Cubs were playing a team with the second-best record in the majors and somehow clawed their way out of the muck to sweep the Nationals in a four-game series.

Javy Baez smacked a walk-off home run in the 13th, and with reliever Pedro Strop giving him a high-stepping escort down the third-base line, a mad, delirious, spent Wrigley Field partied. The victory gave the Cubs a 24-6 record, tops in the majors.

“It’s crazy, isn’t it?’’ Maddon said of the remarkable start. There’s crazy and then there’s crazy like a fox. The manager had his pitchers intentionally walk Nationals’ star Bryce Harper three times. Like most everything else so far this season, it worked.

While we’re on the topic of crazy, Arrieta’s pitches went in directions he hadn’t considered. He walked four. He threw three wild pitches. He even had trouble fielding his position. When he left after throwing 100 pitches, the Cubs trailed 3-1. And it didn’t matter.

“Guys pick each other up when the moment calls for it,’’ he said.

The defending National League Cy Young winner is human. That probably doesn’t need to be pointed out to most people, but for those of you with prayer candles set up around an Arrieta poster in what you call your “sacred space,’’ it’s time to forget about loaves multiplying or Lake Michigan parting.

He came into the game with a 6-0 record and a 0.84 earned-run average. That included a no-hitter, his second in 11 starts dating back to last season. There are pitchers who would gladly give up both arms and throw with a stump for those numbers.

But he is susceptible to the same struggles that have haunted pitchers for decades, and those struggles have popped up of late.

Maddon talked of it before the game.

“Right now he’s pitching at a very high level without being at the top of his game,’’ he said. “I think last year at this time he probably would not have been able to navigate as well as he’s navigating right now. Even on the days that his command might be a little bit off, the fastball’s not going the way he wants to, he’s able to adjust and get through the moment and get deeper in the game and pick up the win. I think last year at this time he was still learning how to do that.’’

Now for some perspective. The last time Arrieta was pulled after five innings while trailing came when he lost 6-0 to Cleveland on June 16, 2015. That loss dropped him to 6-5 with a 3.40 ERA. He would go on to lose one more game the rest of the regular season, the loss coming when the Phillies’ Cole Hamels no-hit the Cubs.

This season, Arrieta pitched only five innings on April 28, but it was in a 7-2 victory over the Brewers.

Days like Sunday will happen. It’s just that you don’t expect them to with Arrieta on the mound. And it’s not as if he was bad. His struggles look like somebody else’s decent day.

“He wasn’t (on top of his game),’’ Maddon said. “He had great stuff – not good stuff. His stuff was outstanding. It’s just that the command of his stuff wasn’t very good. That’s what put us behind the eight ball, what put him behind the eight ball.’’

The Cubs obviously wanted more innings from Arrieta on Sunday because he’s Arrieta, but also because relievers Hector Rondon, Clayton Richard and Strop weren’t going to pitch because of their recent workload. Again, it didn’t matter. The rest of the bullpen was superb, holding Washington to five hits and no runs over eight innings.

The Cubs have won seven games in a row and 12 of their last 13. Their best pitcher wasn’t nearly at his best Sunday, and the Cubs shrugged. No, they wouldn’t need an oxygen tank or a Sherpa guide. Just point them to the mountain.

After the game, a reporter asked Maddon when the team’s remarkable record would start to get surreal.

“Hasn’t it?’’ he said.

It has.