Cubs starter Jake Arrieta took a big step toward priming himself for the postseason with seven shutout innings in a 5-0 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday before a blue-clad crowd of 40,791 at Wrigley Field.
Arrieta (18-7, 2.85) allowed five hits, struck out 10 and walked only one batter in his most productive start since Aug. 23, when he threw eight shut-out innings in a 5-3 victory over the Padres in San Diego.
In four starts since then, Arrieta was 1-2 with a 5.32 ERA and 1.225 WHIP coming into Friday’s game. Outside of a poor start against the Pirates — when he allowed six earned runs in 6 1/3 innings — he wasn’t bad, just not the Arrieta of April and May, when he was 9-0 witha 1.56 ERA in his first 11 starts.
That’s a near-unmatchable standard, of course. But Arrieta, with help from his defense, was in playoff form against the Cardinals — a team desperately fighting for a wild-card berth. He threw 99 pitches, 68 for strikes. He never faced more than four batters in an inning.
Arrieta struck out the side in the first three inning and faced only three batters over the minimum through seven innings thanks to his defense. The Cubs (98-55) had two double plays, including a nifty one in the third inning when Anthony Rizzo charged a sacrifice attempt by Cardinals starter Mike Leake (9-11, 4.72), threw to third to get lead runner Johnny Peralta, with Kris Bryant firing to first to double up Leake.
Catcher Miguel Montero picked off Mike Adams —who had reached with a walk — to end the fourth.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon seemed unconcerned about Arrieta’s less-than-stellar performances in recent outings and the slight decrease in velocity that marked his most recent outing.
“The velocity, the last game, he just intentionally throttled down a little bit,” Maddon said prior to the game when asked what he was hoping to see from Arrieta. “Primarily just repeating his delivery, getting command of his fastball. If he’s got that, it’ll look just like it did last year.”
Reliever Pedro Strop, who was activated from the 15-day disabled list (left mensiscus tear) on Friday, pitched a scoreless eighth inning in his first appearance since Aug. 10. Strop walked Peralta on four pitches, but struck out Wong and induced pinch-hitter Brandon Moss to hit into a double-play to end the inning.
Travis Wood and Carl Edwards, Jr. pitched the ninth inning.
Montero caught Arrieta for the first time since Aug. 6 — a reward in part for a recent hot streak. Montero came into the game hitting .364 (16-for-44) in his last 16 games, with three doubles, two homers (one of them a walk-off against the Brewers last week) and 10 RBIs. Montero was 0-for-3 on Friday.
“I want to see it,” Maddon said before the game. “Miggy’s really been playing well. I don’t want to discount anything. You want to keep everything on the table. Nothing has been concluded [about the postseason]. I want to keep throwing him out there. Miggy’s playing at a very high level right now and he’s done [well] with Jake in the past, so I wanted to get them together.”
The Cubs took advantage of Cardinals mishaps to take a 4-0 lead in the first inning. Dexter Fowler, who led off with a walk against Leake, scored on a wild pitch. Anthony Rizzo (3-for-5, 1 RBI) hit an RBI single that turned into a double when Kolten Wong slipped and fell in left field, with Kris Bryant (2-for-4, walk) scoring.
Rizzo advanced to third on another wild pitch by Leake and scored on Ben Zobrist’s single to right through a drawn-in infield. Chris Coghlan doubled down the right-field line to score Jason Heyward and give the Cubs a 4-0 lead.
The Cubs made it 5-0 when Zobrist beat out a double play with the bases loaded — scoring Arrieta, who led off the inning with a single.
The loss was a blow to the Cardinals (80-73), who fell a full game behind the Giants (81-72) and Mets (81-72) in the National League wild-card race. The three teams are fighting for two wild-card spots.
The series continues Saturday (12:05 p.m.) at Wrigley Field. Jason Hammel (15-9, 3.56), who likely needs a strong finish for a shot at being in the Cubs’ playoff rotation, will face Cardinals right-hander Alex Reyes (3-1, 1.03).