Jake Arrieta took a long look at the outfield ivy. He gazed at mostly empty rows of bleachers and at the scoreboard that looms over center field like a guardian of history. Did he hear a Red Line train clatter by? He must have.
Before what might have been his final game as a Cub, Arrieta took note of all the sights and sounds of Wrigley Field.
“Warming up in the outfield, I was just trying to take it all in,” he said. “The weather, too — very indicative of October baseball. Some rain. Fairly chilly weather, but nothing too crazy.”
After losing Game 4 of the division series to electric Stephen Strasburg and the Nationals, Arrieta continued to sound like a free-agent-to-be who suspects his time with the Cubs is nearly over. Thursday’s deciding Game 5 in Washington could be the 31-year-old right-hander’s last few hours in a Cubs uniform.
“Hopefully we come out ready — as I know we will — and I get another shot,” he said.
Another shot would mean facing the Dodgers in the NLCS in Chicago. It would extend one of the greatest three-year stretches by any player in Cubs history. And it would give Arrieta at least one more chance to, as he put it the other day, “capture some mental images of Wrigley and the fan base and my teammates, and just to try to remember as much as I can about these last couple weeks.”
After having lasted only three innings in his previous start, on Sept. 26, Arrieta fared a bit better in Game 4. He labored through four innings, throwing 90 pitches and allowing an unearned run.
If that’s how he goes out as a Cub, it’s unbefitting a pitcher who was a sparkling 68-31 in 4½ seasons on the North Side. Over the last three seasons, Arrieta’s 54 victories, 2.71 ERA and .203 opponents’ batting average rank first, second and third, respectively, in all of baseball.
“I was just a little erratic,” he said. “My emotions were high. The energy level was at a pretty high level, obviously, in this situation.”
There were moments — though not many — when Arrieta looked like the pitcher who has a Cy Young award, two no-hitters and a pair of World Series victories to his credit as a Cub. He broke the bat of the first batter he faced, Trea Turner. And he struck out the last one, making Jayson Werth look silly with the bases loaded in the fourth.
But Arrieta was no match for the younger, more talented Strasburg, which shouldn’t have come as too big a surprise. Arrieta was spectacular in 2015, very good in 2016 and certainly better than most in 2017. He’s trending downward just enough, though, that the Cubs might not want to give him a monster contract worth upward of $200 million.
“I know that, obviously, his heart probably wants to stay here,” fellow starting pitcher Jon Lester said. “But sometimes in the nature of this game, the business of this game, it doesn’t always go the way you want it to go.
“He’s been a vital part of our rotation, a vital part of our team. It’s a hard guy to replace. But if he’s not here next year, you have to believe in the ownership and the management and what their vision is going forward.”
It sure doesn’t sound like one of the best pitchers the Cubs have ever had will be back. One can almost hear a train clattering in the distance, coming to carry Arrieta to his new home.
Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.