Everything’s Jake? Arrieta regains his touch in win over Cards

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Cubs starter Jake Arrieta pitched seven shut-out innings in a 5-0 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday at Wrigley Field. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

With the Cubs closing in on the playoffs, Jake Arrieta left a calling card at Wrigley Field on Friday — a little reminder that he’s not too far removed from being the best pitcher on the planet.

The defending Cy Young Award winner pushed aside a recent stretch of mediocre starts that dropped him to No. 3 in a lot of people’s playoff rotation with seven shutout innings in a 5-0 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals.

The win, combined with the Nationals’ loss to the Pirates on Friday night clinched home-field advantage throughout the National League playoffs.

Arrieta (18-7, 2.85 ERA) allowed five hits, struck out 10 and walked only one. He threw 99 pitches, 68 of them for strikes and never faced more than four batters in an inning. It was good enough that manager Joe Maddon dared to compare it to last season, when Arrieta closed like no pitcher ever did — 16-1 with a 0.86 ERA in his final 20 starts.

“Pretty nice, wasn’t it?” Maddon said. “Watching from the side, it looked really familiar — the way they were taking some pitches, the strikeouts, the cutter/slider looked sharper. A couple of good curveballs. But primarily the fastball command and location was really good and that’s a positive sign.

“That was reminiscent of what we saw last year. Not 100 percent there, but pretty darn good.”

Arrieta is having an excellent season — his 18 victories are tied with teammate Jon Lester and the Nationals’ Max Scherzer for most in the National League — but has had the almost impossible task of maintaining an unreal pace after going 9-1 with a 1.56 ERA in his first 11 starts. In his four previous starts, he was 1-2 with a 5.32 ERA — good enough to win in three of the four actually, just not Jake Arrieta.

For Arrieta, regaining his touch was a matter of approach. Instead of trying too hard, he went back to doing what he does best — pitch.

“The big thing for me is controlling my effort. When I’m able to do that, my stuff speaks for itself,” Arrieta said. “Sometimes the competitiveness, the stubbornness gets in the way. But once I push that aside, stuff works pretty well.”

With Lester and Kyle Hendricks having Cy Young Award-caliber seasons, Arrieta’s return to earth has not hurt the Cubs. But from Maddon on down, getting Arrieta back to his previous form is a priority. Catcher Miguel Montero is on a hot streak at the plate, but put that aside Friday to give his full concentration to Arrieta.

“My main goal today was to get Jake going and throw a good game and build up his confidence again,” Montero said. “I went 0-for-3 — I don’t care. I accomplished my goal.”

And Arrieta left no doubt that confidence is not an issue. Anything he did to convince him he can sustain this? “I don’t need anything to convince me that I can sustain this,” he said.

Montero’s approach was a little different than Arrieta’s. He wanted Arrieta to just let it fly and not worry about making perfect pitches.

“Jake has such good stuff, as a catcher sometimes we forget how nasty he is and we start trying to trick the hitters when we really don’t need to do that,” Montero said. “We just got to go after it. And that’s what I did today.

“Rather than making a perfect pitch, you could see his fastball velocity picked up today — that was my main goal. I don’t want you throwing 91 on the edges. I want you throwing 94-95. Let it go. I’ve had experience with pitchers where they get hit a few times and they start nibbling. No. You’ve got to stay strong. Stay positive. Just make pitches. We create bad habits — slowing your arm down just to be perfect and when you make a mistake you get hurt.

“If you’re going to make a mistake, make a mistake letting it all out. He did today. There were pitches he threw middle-middle, they couldn’t do anything with him, because there was conviction behind it. He was letting the ball go.”

It remains to be seen if this was just a good outing, or an indication that Montero and Arrieta have discovered a solution. But the signs were all good Friday.

“That’s a good hitting lineup,” Maddon said of the Cardinals. “It was a great test to see where he’s at.”

“I’m pretty excited for what I saw today,” Montero said, “especially going into the playoffs, because we’re going to need it.”

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