Published December 03, 2016
By the time Jake Arrieta threw his first pitch on Tuesday night, the Chicago Cubs were already in control of Game 6. By the time the reigning Cy Young winner gave up his first hit, a leadoff double in the fourth, the Cubs led by seven.
"I knew that was all we were going to need," Arrieta said.
And then some.
Keeping the Cleveland Indians off balance for 5 2/3 innings, Arrieta didn't let the massive cushion go to waste. He never does. The pitcher who won all 15 games in which his teammates gave him at least six runs stayed aggressive in a largely drama-free 9-3 victory, just as manager Joe Maddon knew he would when he entrusted Arrieta with the ball and Chicago's season in the balance.
Maddon didn't give Arrieta any sort of pep talk. The stakes were obvious. So was the weight of history. Who better to trust than the guy whose rebirth in Chicago has come in lockstep with the club's rise from cuddly also-rans to blossoming juggernaut?
"I think Jake likes to shoulder these kind of moments," Maddon said a couple of hours before the game.
And own them too.
Given an early boost by Chicago's suddenly hot again offense, Arrieta struck out nine and walked three to improve to 2-0 in the World Series.
In Game 2, he kept the Indians hitless into the sixth to send the Cubs back to Chicago with things all tied up. Tuesday night he battled occasional control issues to move Chicago within one victory of its first championship in 108 years. Even after needing 102 pitches to get 17 outs, he plans to be in the bullpen just in case.
"I'll definitely be available if outs are needed," Arrieta said. "Last game of the year, Game 7 of the World Series. Everybody's pretty much available tomorrow."
The only tense moment came after Jason Kipnis scored on Mike Napoli's RBI single with one out in the fourth. Arrieta hit Lonnie Chisenhall with a pitch and walked Coco Crisp to load the bases.
Just as it appeared Arrieta was on the brink of letting the Indians back in it, he recovered. When Tyler Naquin swung and missed on a 1-2 pitch, the Cubs were out of danger and on their way.
It's those bouts of temporary wildness that's taken just a bit off the edge that made Arrieta so unhittable during his Cy Young winning run in 2015, when he practically carried Chicago's pitching staff in the second half as the Cubs locked down a playoff spot and eventually made it all the way to the NLCS before falling to the New York Mets.
Arrieta's 16 wild pitches led the National League and his 76 walks marked a career high during a year in which he went 18-8 with a 3.10 ERA and made the All-Star team. It's a great season by just about any measure, except when the measure is Arrieta's 2015 when he led the majors in wins (22), ERA (1.77) and shutouts (three).
That nearly yearlong stretch of dominance ended after the All-Star break. He went just 6-4 over the season's final 10 weeks and his ERA in September was a mediocre 4.68. His two starts before the World Series were both Chicago losses, one to San Francisco in the Division Series in which he pitched well and another to the Los Angeles Dodgers in which he did not.
Arrieta saw his spot as the team's ace vanish too with Jon Lester getting the nod in Game 1 of the World Series and Kyle Hendricks — who will start Game 7 — leading the majors with a 2.13 ERA.
Yet the prospect of living up to the outsize expectations Arrieta set for himself hardly seem to bother him. He spent Monday taking his two kids trick-or-treating. A day later, he looked at ease silencing the non-Cubs portion of Progressive Field. The only Indian he struggled with in the Series was Kipnis, who went 3 for 5 against him. The rest of the Indians combined to go 2 for 34.
By the time Maddon came out to take the ball from Arrieta following a two-out walk in the sixth, the loud Chicago contingent behind the Cubs dugout gave him a rousing ovation.
The dream of ending a championship drought that extends back more than a century is very much alive thanks in part to the well-bearded right-hander who makes up in tenacity what he sometimes lacks in polish.
Just like his team.