PITTSBURGH – Maybe it’s the weight of the target, the heat of a grueling schedule into the All-Star break, the injuries, an All-Star selection hangover or some combination of those factors.
But this Cubs team that for much of the first half laid claim to “best in baseball” looks more like the team that most needs a day off.
Or more pitching.
Even on a night Jake Arrieta showed flashes of a return to Cy Young form, the Cubs’ most important player missed just enough spots in the seventh and not enough bats in the second to finish his second half with an 8-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the opener of a three-game series.
“I just let that one get away,” said Arrieta (12-4), who took a 4-3 lead into the seventh after a tying homer by Miguel Montero in the sixth and go-ahead shot by Anthony Rizzo in the seventh.
“That was probably the frustrating aspect of tonight,” he said of struggles he couldn’t quite shake despite impressive stretches in the game and a low pitch count through six.
“I probably pitched to contact a little too much in certain situations,” he said. “I just need to find that happy medium of getting ahead, being better on the corners in situations, and not letting breaking balls catch too much of the plate.”
It might not be an exaggeration to say the Cubs’ season depends on it.
Arrieta, who rode the best 20-start finish in history to last year’s National League Cy Young Award, was 9-0 with a 1.56 ERA 11 starts into the season, through May.
He’s 3-4 with a 4.81 ERA in seven starts since then, averaging less than 5 2/3 innings a start – and he’s allowed 15 earned runs in 16 1/3 innings his last three starts.
He’s gone four consecutive turns without a quality start for the first time as a Cub. And you have to go back to Aug. 28 two seasons ago to find the last start he allowed six earned runs.
Manager Joe Maddon pointed again to the fact Arrieta’s velocity, breaking stuff and health all are at good. He also knows how much a return to some semblance of dominances for Arrieta means to his bullpen, and his team’s fortunes.
“I can’t tell you exactly how that’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s something we’re continually working on, regarding the command and feeling good about where he’s throwing his pitches. I don’t have a solid answer for you.”
Meanwhile, the Cubs have lost four in a row, eight of nine and 14 of their last 19 games with two to play before the All-Star break.
They can’t even count on their own personal whipping boys to get back on track anymore. Before Tuesday, they were a combined 18-2 against the Reds and Pirates. In the four days since: 0-3.
On this day, sloppy fielding in the late innings contributed to an overall ugly look.
But like most things in baseball, this skid starts with starting pitching – with the Cubs’ best-in-baseball starting rotation going 3-10 with a 5.70 ERA during that 19-game stretch, with 11 starts of less than six innings.
“Our whole staff kind of feels [responsible]. We’ve been in kind of a lull for the past two weeks,” Arrieta said. “If our guys are healthy, which we are as far as the staff is concerned, I like our ability to go out there and pitch better [in the second half].”
Arrieta, who had been in the conversation for an All-Star start in recent weeks — even heading into this start — bristled when asked about his frustration level during the past month.
“I don’t know where low-A is, but maybe I need to go there and work on some stuff,” he said sarcastically. “I’m good. It’s not ideal. But I like what I do in between starts, and my stuff’s fine. I’ve just got to get better.”