Right-hander Jake Arrieta has been sharp in most of his starts, leading the Cubs’ rotation through nearly two months of baseball. But after tossing his best game of the season in his last outing against the Tigers, Arrieta wasn’t quite as fine Wednesday in the 4-3 loss to the Nationals.
Arrieta, however, has been able to keep the Cubs in games even when he doesn’t have his best stuff, and that was the case as he went toe-to-toe with Nationals ace Max Scherzer.
Arrieta got through the first two innings without any damage. But the Nationals started to make him work in the third inning, going deep in counts, spoiling pitches and increasing his pitch count.
“He got ahead of a lot of guys,’’ manager David Ross said. ‘‘I just thought he didn’t have that finishing pitch tonight. He wasn’t getting a lot of chases underneath. Got ahead and then not being able to really finish hitters off was really the only issue.”
“I came out a little flat,” Arrieta said. “First and second inning were pretty good. Just was flat in the third, fourth and fifth inning. A lot of high-stress pitches with guys on base and a couple of walks. Command wasn’t very good.”
Trea Turner’s RBI single tied the score at 1 in the third. Turner would come around to score on a wild pitch by Arrieta to give the Nationals a 2-1 lead.
Arrieta continued to grind in the fourth and fifth innings as the Nationals added two runs. The hardest contact came off the bat of Juan Soto. He turned on a 3-2 slider from Arrieta, crushing it off the scoreboard in right field in the fifth to make it 4-1.
“He’s one of the best hitters in the game,” Arrieta said. “If he needs to go the other way to get a rally started or is looking to do damage, he’s capable of just about everything.”
Even though Arrieta didn’t allow a ton of hard contact and wasn’t overly wild, Washington made him pay for leaving pitches over the inner third of the plate.
It was only the second time that Arrieta, who has kept the ball away from the barrel well this season, had allowed more than three earned runs in a start. He gave up four runs and seven hits in five innings.
“Just didn’t really get into a rhythm,” he said. ‘‘It was a tough night, not what I wanted, especially going up against Max. I need to be better than that.”
But Arrieta wasn’t the only former Cy Young winner who had to battle through five innings.
Scherzer was not at his best against the Cubs. He racked up eight strikeouts but did not have his normal control, walking four batters and giving the Cubs several opportunities. They had at least one baserunner in every inning Scherzer pitched after the first.
The best opportunity came in the fifth inning after Arrieta led off with a broken-bat single. The Cubs loaded the bases with one out against Scherzer and got an RBI single from Ian Happ to make it 4-2.
But Willson Contreras struck out and David Bote flied out to end the threat.
Javy Baez hit a solo shot in the ninth inning to close the deficit to 4-3.
And a night after losing first baseman Anthony Rizzo to lower-back tightness, right fielder Jason Heyward was removed in the fifth inning because of tightness in his left hamstring. Heyward is the Cubs’ only outfielder who hasn’t missed time this season. He was replaced by catcher P.J. Higgins, who made his major-league debut.
“This group rallies,” Ross said. “Guys continue to battle. That’s a banged-up group, and these guys faced a really good pitcher today and held that thing together out there to the end and just came up on the short end.”