Jake Arrieta threw his first-career no-hitter against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday. With it, came the title of Chicago Cubs' ace.
First it was Billy Hamilton who ruined Jake Arrieta’s dreams of a no-hitter. The Reds hadn’t logged a hit through the first six innings of their June 24, 2014 matchup against the Cubs' righty until Hamilton smashed a single up the middle to start the seventh. Six days later, it was Red Sox shortstop Stephen Drew’s turn to end Arrieta’s no-hit bid late in the game, singling with two outs in the eighth.
On Sept. 16 it looked like Cincinnati would fall victim to an Arrieta no-no after all, flailing at a mix of 96-plus mph fastballs and sharp cutters through seven innings. But with one out in the eighth, Brandon Phillips hit a double over the outstretched glove of Chicago outfielder Matt Szczur. Arrieta had become the first Cubs pitcher since 1950 to take three no-hit bids into the seventh inning, yet he'd failed to convert any of them. Perhaps he was doomed from ever throwing one.
Thanks to a brilliant mix of arm angles, a devastating cut-fastball and a helpful decision from the official scorer, Arrieta erased such doubts on Sunday. The bearded flamethrower tossed his first career no-hitter in a 2–0 win over the Dodgers in Los Angeles. It was the 14th no-hitter in franchise history and the fourth time a visiting pitcher threw a no-hitter at Dodger Stadium, the first since the Braves’ Kent Mercker did so on April 8, 1994.
“I thought it was going to happen at some point,” Arrieta told Cubs radio affiliate WBBM after the game, before conducting his postgame press conference in a onesie. “But you can never predict the result.”
The 29-year-old Arrieta completed his stunning August with his best outing yet, improving to 6–0 record with a 0.43 ERA and 0.69 WHIP for the month. With the win, Chicago opened up a 5 1/2 game lead on the Giants for the second NL wild card spot and avoided a sweep at the hands of the NL West-leading Dodgers, who entered the night having won five in a row.
Discussion of this year’s NL Cy Young has been mostly limited to L.A.'s Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw and the Mets' Jacob deGrom, but Arrieta belongs in the discussion. With the victory Sunday, Arrieta became the NL's first 17-game winner. He has also thrown 14 consecutive quality starts, and his ERA has dropped to 2.11, second-best in the league.
Arrieta has matured from a flamethrower into a more judicious starter, increasing his ground-ball rate and relying less on overpowering hitters. But he still can rack up the Ks.
He set a season-high with 12 strikeouts on Sunday night, showing off a sparkling cutter that has emerged as his premier pitch, one that darts violently across the plate late in its arrival. Los Angeles struggled to square up the sixth-year righthander all night, with two notable exceptions. The first came in the third inning when second baseman Starlin Castro couldn't handle a line drive off the bat of Kike Hernandez; it was ruled an error, though even Arrieta conceded he thought it was a hit. The second close call came in the seventh, when Castro moved to his right and snagged a Carl Crawford liner to end the inning.
“His cutter was the best I’ve seen it, and it’s good every start,” Chicago catcher Miguel Montero told WBBM. “His fastball command is just outstanding.”
It’s no wonder Arrieta’s usage of the pitch has increased from 6.1% in 2013 to 28.4% this season according to fangraphs.com. His fastball velocity didn’t waver toward the end of his 116-pitch outing on Sunday, either, as he hit 96 mph on the gun several times in the final inning and struck out the side, getting Justin Turner swinging, Jimmy Rollins looking and, for the final out, Chase Utley swinging.
As for the Dodgers, it remains a mystery which lineup will arrive on any given night.
The team that leads the National League in home runs and on-base percentage was no-hit for the second time in nine days. Lagging from injuries to outfielder Yasiel Puig and second baseman Howie Kendrick coupled with struggles from catcher Yasmani Grandal and third baseman Turner, L.A. is fortunate to have maintained 3 1/2 game divisional lead on the reeling Giants, who lost for the seventh time in 11 games on Sunday. The two clubs meet in a critical three-game clash starting Monday in Los Angeles.
The Cubs, meanwhile, have the fourth-best record in the majors despite residing in third place in the NL Central. Should they secure one of the coveted wild card spots, their potential starter in the winner-take-all game is hardly a foregone conclusion. Chicago paid Jon Lester $155 million in the off-season to be its ace, but he is a pedestrian 8–10 with a 3.59 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 1.9 WAR. Compare that with Arrieta’s aforementioned numbers and his staggering 5.5 WAR, and it looks like he should be the clear selection.
It would represent an appropriate validation for his career-best season. After four mostly unremarkable seasons with the Orioles and Cubs since debuting in 2010, Arrieta finished ninth in the NL Cy Young race a year ago. This spring he lamented his close no-hitter calls and told CSN Chicago that “he’d be able to put himself back in those situations.” Someday, he said, he could see it happening.
On Sunday, it finally did.