Jake Arrieta seeks clincher, soaks in personal countdown with Cubs

ST. LOUIS – It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance to the Cubs of Jake Arrieta’s quick return from a hamstring injury.

It might be even more difficult to overstate how important it was to Arrieta.

After returning with five strong innings Thursday in a victory over the Brewers, Arrieta admitted over the weekend to slipping into bouts of nostalgia lately as he begins to measure what figures to be his final few weeks as a Cub.

“I go all the way back to my rookie season and even before that, just the progression of me as a person, a player, a teammate,” said Arrieta, who has had the kind of four-year run with the Cubs that not even Greg Maddux or Rick Sutcliffe can match.

Jake Arrieta during the World Series

The Cubs’ likely Game 1 playoff starter late next week against the Nationals, Arrieta starts Tuesday in St. Louis with a chance to clinch a second consecutive National League Central championship.

That also would clinch three straight postseason appearances for the Cubs for the first time since 1906-08.

And this: His start Tuesday might well be his last as a Cub against the Cardinals, and his start Sunday against the Reds possibly his last at Wrigley Field in a Cub uniform.

“Yeah, I’ve thought about it,” he said. “Hopefully, the last one is at some point in the playoffs. But if for some reason it works out that way, it’ll be an emotional start. It’ll be a special one.”

That’s what they’re all starting to feel like for Arrieta, each one part of a slow-motion countdown to what’s likely the end of the most celebrated, accomplished chapter in his baseball life.

“It’s a point in my career where I’ve been able to do a lot of reflecting,” Arrieta said. “I don’t do it as often as I probably should, just because simply there’s not enough time to right now.”

It certainly was a major incentive during his rehab work after suffering the right hamstring injury in his Sept. 4 start in Pittsburgh. Team officials marveled at the way Arrieta’s physical conditioning allowed him to return so quickly, but the mental drive and motivation might have been just as strong an influence.

Arrieta hasn’t ruled out talking to the team when he becomes a free agent this fall about a multiyear contract. But nothing has changed between the sides to suggest the odds of that enormous long shot are any better.

“I’m trying to take advantage of this opportunity, if it is my last with this organization, and really make the most of it,” Arrieta said, “for not only myself but for the rest of the guys in this room and the coaching staff and the organization top to bottom and the entire city and all of our fans across the world.”

Widely considered one of the best trades in franchise history, Arrieta was acquired, with Pedro Strop, from the Orioles for Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger in July 2013.

He had a losing record and 5.46 ERA with Baltimore.

But he has been arguably the biggest reason for the Cubs’ competitive turnaround since then, going 68-30 in 127 starts, with a 2.71 ERA, a 2015 Cy Young Award, 2016 All-Star selection, two no-hitters and a World Series ring.

Nobody since Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown has more World Series victories as a Cub than the two Arrieta won in Cleveland last fall.

“It’s really humbling to just try and understand the magnitude of what I’ve been able to accomplish and what collectively we’ve been able to be a part of as a team these last three or four years,” he said.

“It’s really a unique opportunity to be a part of something special for multiple years in this organization so I’m going to do everything I can in my power to make it a good [finish].”

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Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com