CHICAGO — Now that they’ve clinched the National League Central, the Chicago Cubs have a short list of things to accomplish the rest of the regular season. None of those is more important than getting Jake Arrieta as close to his Cy Young form as he can be before the postseason.
Arrieta cruised through five innings Saturday but suffered a lapse with his command in the sixth, and that led to three Brewers runs as Milwaukee went on to rout the Cubs 11-3. The turning point was a two-run homer by Cubs nemesis Ryan Braun, the first of two long balls in a five-RBI day for the Milwaukee slugger.
“We missed location on several pitches, and give them credit: They did not miss the baseball. That’s what I saw,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “Jake did not have his typical command. And the first home run to Braun, you could see how badly he wanted to do one thing and ended up doing something different.”
The loss prevented Arrieta from becoming the National League’s first 18-game winner, and because he has only two more starts before the postseason, Arrieta will not become the first Cubs pitcher to record back-to-back 20-win seasons since Fergie Jenkins in the early 1970s. With Saturday’s game, Arrieta’s ERA (2.96) rose to its highest since June 21, 2015.
“Twenty is great,” Arrieta said. “At the same time, the position I’m in with our team is more rewarding.”
That position has all eyes on October. As if the players needed a reminder, when they arrived at the clubhouse Saturday, they found T-shirts draped over the chairs in front of their lockers. The shirts commemorated their division title with a small logo, but the most real estate on the shirt was taken up by three words: MADE FOR OCTOBER.
Does the team’s manager have any concerns about his ace?
“We have something we definitely have to get him more comfortable with,” Maddon said. “We’ve got to figure out exactly what’s going wrong. It’s fixable. We have some ideas. We’ll definitely go over it with him. In spite of that, look at what he’s done to this point. That’s the biggest thing. If we can get him to have better command of his fastball the next two starts, everything else will play off of that.”
While any personal milestone Arrieta might reach is interesting, what really matters is reversing some disturbing recent trends. In his past six outings, Arrieta has gone 3-2 with a 4.58 ERA, and he has walked 21 batters in 37⅓ innings. That’s a rate of 5.1 per nine innings.
As it turns out, for all the hand-wringing about Arrieta’s lagging slider, his command of his fastball, particularly his hard sinker, is the larger issue. Arrieta threw 22 sliders Saturday, his most since July 8. He was in the zone on 12 of those (54.5 percent), which is better than his season average (51.8).
The problem is that for the wipe-away slider to work as a put-away pitch, Arrieta needs to stay ahead in the count, which he typically tries to accomplish with the hard stuff. He was in the zone with fastballs and sinkers just 44.7 percent of the time Saturday, or 10 percent under his season rate.
“I’m not concerned with it,” Arrieta said. “Just need to find that comfort with the sinker in the strike zone, first pitch. After that, it opens up a lot of doors. We’re working on it. It has a lot to do with the guy who’s in the box. And the execution needs to be better earlier in the counts to prevent guys from taking pitches and getting into 3-1, 2-1 counts.”
What’s the big deal? In plate appearances in which Arrieta goes up in the count 0-1, batters have a paltry .426 OPS against him. When it’s 1-0, that number jumps to .689. The bright side is that Arrieta seems strong. His upper-end velocity was regularly hitting 94 to 96 mph Saturday, and that suggests it’s just a matter of finding the zone before hitters can get the bead on him. He has his next two starts, and then the pressure is on.
“I just need to tighten that [command] up moving forward,” Arrieta said. ”Have a couple of starts left before October, and just to prepare for that, that’s the mindset.”