NEW YORK – Jake Arrieta is still good. Very good, by most indications.
But can the Cubs pull off all their big plans this year without him being much, much better than that? Without him returning to something close to the form that earned him the Cy Young Award last year and a 9-0 start through May?
“It’s really important,” manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s really important to our success.”
A dominant Arrieta was what got the Cubs to the playoffs last year. It’s what the front office built a $290 million off-season around – filling needs for the two-year window they were assured of club control over their ace.
And it’s critical for making the Cubs a bona fide pennant favorite the second half of the season, by allowing the rest of the roster to fall into place behind him, including a bullpen built to cover the difference on five- and six-inning starts two days out of five – not three.
“The biggest thing is just innings and getting more deeply into the games,” Maddon said. “Just to be able to get him back pitching into the seventh inning, maybe right around 100, 105 pitches, would be kind of a nice thing. And if he did, I’m sure we’re going to be in pretty good position to win that game. And, of course, what it does for the bullpen [is big].
“I fully anticipate it’s going to happen,” he added. “Hopefully, sooner rather than later. But I’m not here to tell you exactly when.”
Since his no-hitter April 21, Arrieta has lasted 5 1/3 innings or less in seven of 13 starts. Since the end of May, he’s 3-3 with a 4.05 ERA and 17 walks in 33 1/3 innings – 11 in his last 14 1/3.
“I need to be in more pitcher-friendly counts. That’s really the summary from my perspective,” said Arrieta, who still is tied for the National League lead in wins (12) and ranks third in ERA (2.33). “I need to get after it alittle bit more and force the issue.
“I’ll use the extra day [before the next start, Friday] to do some things, whether it’s in the weight room or on the side,” he said. “I need to do a better job of just getting a feel out front and finishing pitches, and having the aggressiveness through the strike zone, trying to work through the catcher more as opposed to trying to be fine to the corners.”
He said he’s frustrated it’s taken so long to return to the kind of sharpness that put him among baseball’s pitching elite over the last year. But neither he nor Maddon says he’s concerned it won’t return.
“We’re spinning our wheels a little bit too much [talking about] trying to figure out what the solution is, or is there a problem,” Arrieta said. “I just need to pitch better. That’s it. Bottom line.”
More than the performance of any other player on the team, his might tell the story of the Cubs’ bottom line at the end of the season.