CHICAGO — The raucous fans at Wrigley Field got what they wanted, but not what they expected. Their team won even though Jake Arrieta, the Cubs ace who has been almost unhittable since July, was quite hittable.
“I’m actually happy that it happened, so I realize he’s human,” catcher Miguel Montero said with a smile. “I was a little concerned about it.”
Montero could afford to be happy because his team won the game, 8–6, thanks to home runs from six players, a postseason record. And this was all a reminder: Arrieta may be the best pitcher in baseball at the moment, but he was never really the plan.
When the Cubs acquired Arrieta midway through the 2013 season, he was a 27-year-old former top prospect with a 7.23 ERA and 1.775 WHIP. He was a chance you take. There were signs that he could be an effective major-league starter, but nobody knew if it would actually happen. The Cubs acquired him because that’s what rebuilding teams do: They buy as many small-cap stocks as they can and hope a few of them blow up into large-caps.
No, the plan for Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer was always hitting. There isn’t enough of it in Major League Baseball these days. Epstein and Hoyer acquired as much as they could. They effectively adapted the same guiding principles they used in Boston: Find the most undervalued talent and jump on it. In this case, with so much pitching available, that’s easier to acquire. So Epstein and Hoyer focused on hitting.
They acquired so much hitting so quickly that a new prospect seemed to cut the old prospects in line every few months. It wasn’t long ago that Starlin Castro was the face of an unpromising rebuilding effort. This summer, Castro got shifted from shortstop to second base to make room for Addison Russell. Manager Joe Maddon had to promise Castro he wouldn’t get traded. And Monday night, after he hit a home run, Castro was asked if he ever felt forgotten.
He is 25.
Well, the five other Cubs who hit home runs Monday are 22 (Kyle Schwarber), 23 (Kris Bryant), 23 (Jorge Soler), 26 (Anthony Rizzo), and 29 (Dexter Fowler). Soler is so nervous for this postseason, all he has done is homer twice, walk twice, hit a double, a single and not make a single out.
“His at-bats are awesome,” said Bryant, the young star who hits behind Soler, and therefore gets to watch him from the on-deck circle. “He’s seeing the ball really, really [well] … taking some borderline pitches there, and he’s not missing his pitch when he gets it.”
Bryant said Soler’s home run Monday “was like a two-iron,” which confused me since my two-irons tend not to leave the infield.
Bad teams tend to overrate mediocre players. The Cubs can take good ones for granted. For all the losing history that hovers over the franchise, this is a juggernaut in the making.
Arrieta surely sees it. The Cardinals tried to Cardinal him to death—laying off his sliders as much as they could, waiting for a pitch up in the zone, hoping to pounce. They are disciplined and deep, and as Arrieta said, “They made it tough. They made me battle, made me work for it.”
He was kicking himself afterward for walking the first two batters in the fourth inning. For two months, his control was pinpoint; walking the first two batters of a playoff inning was unthinkable.
Arrieta had a framed copy of The Chicago Sun-Times in his clubhouse stall; it was the edition after he shut out the Pirates in a wild-card performance that amazed everybody except those who saw him all season. Catcher David Ross, watching from the dugout, said of Arrieta’s Pittsburgh performance, “I didn’t think he was as sharp as he had been in the other games. That’s ridiculous. That’s a great way to describe how he’s been pitching.”
He wasn’t as sharp in this one either. And it was a bad night for Arrieta to be a little off, not just because it was a playoff game, but because of the scoring conditions. The flags on the leftfield foul pole, the ones that say BANKS 14 and SANTO 10 and JENKINS 31, were active all night. The wind was blowing hard. St. Louis’s Jason Heyward, who let a hittable pitch go past him for a rally-ending strike three earlier in the game, hit a tougher Arrieta offering over the leftfield fence in the sixth.
Arrieta left the game soon after, but he got a good view of the fun: “Seeing the ball fly out of the yard as many times as it did, it was incredible.”
Russell, who left the game with hamstring tightness after legging out a triple in the fourth, said he kept hearing the crowd erupt from the training room. It was a good night to wear Cubs blue in the old yard.
There may be better nights ahead. When Arrieta’s superhuman run began, in late July, the Cubs trailed the Cardinals by 11 1/2 games. Including the playoffs, they are now 100–66 in 2015. The Cardinals are 101–64. Any perception that the Cardinals are better is just that: perception, based on the last few years or the last 107.
Arrieta said the series will go to “the team that makes [fewer] mistakes. Both teams play clean baseball.” The Cubs are one game away from eliminating the Cardinals, and St. Louis manager Mike Matheny will turn to his Game 1 starter, John Lackey, in Game 4.
Lackey perplexed the Cubs in Game 1. But he is almost 37 and will be pitching on three days rest, against a lineup that seems to get better every day, with every game.