PITTSBURGH — Jake Arrieta lasted fewer than five innings in his start against the Pirates on Saturday. But a blister on his thumb was not a problem for the first time in three starts, and Arrieta saw signs of good things to come in his seven-strikeout performance.
The Cubs fell below .500 yet again with their 4-3 loss to the Pirates at PNC Park. But they remain just 2½ games out of first place with 95 left.
They lost for the 11th time in their last 13 road games. But they have the best record in division play in the National League Central, with 55 games left against those teams.
So what is it with this 33-34 Cubs team? Is the glass almost half-full, or is it just under half-empty?
“I think most of these guys will agree when I say that I like where we’re at as far as the standings and how much time we have to make some things happen,” said Arrieta, who gave up a two-run homer in the first to Gregory Polanco and hit one in the fifth off Ivan Nova.
“We’re in this position with one team ahead of us that’s in striking distance for us with a ton of time. So, granted, we’re not where we’d like to be, but we’re not far off. There’s a little optimism there. I don’t think there’s any reason for us to get down. We’ve got a majority of our guys healthy, so I think that’s a big-time positive for us.”
The Cubs have been much healthier than most teams this season, but starter Kyle Hendricks (hand) is on the disabled list for what could be a few more weeks, and World Series MVP Ben Zobrist (wrist) is on the DL for at least a few more days.
If there’s any prescience to what Arrieta had to say, it’s going to have a lot to do with when Hendricks can get back, how Arrieta’s thumb and stuff hold up and whether Jon Lester spends the rest of the season looking more like the guy who pitched seven impressive innings Tuesday against the Mets rather than the one who gave up 13 runs in his previous three starts.
They were the biggest reasons the Cubs won 103 games last year and big reasons they surged into contention the year before.
And they remain the keys to whatever comes next.
“I’ve talked about the starting pitching driving the engine,” manager Joe Maddon said. “When the starting pitching is good and right, obviously the bullpen gets less stress, your offense normally plays at least even or most of the time ahead early in the game until you gain some traction. All those things happen when you’re starting pitching well. Getting those guys back closer to normal will be outstanding.”
Arrieta (6-5) struggled on an 85-degree night with a “surprising” amount of sweat that made it tough to grip and snap off several of his pitches, especially during a fifth inning that included two wild pitches and a hit batter to load the bases with two outs. That ended his night at 94 pitches.
“Rosin at that point didn’t help,” he said. “I tried to take some effort off just to command something in the strike zone, and it didn’t work out.”
He said he wasn’t happy with the high pitch count. But the big picture is positive.
“The thumb’s great,” he said. “I think that’s the biggest concern, that this is OK.”
Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.