As they spent draft picks and money to build a war chest of bats, the Chicago Cubs always came back to the same thought: We'll find pitching. There was some cockiness to this, as there is to much of what the Cubs do, because the people who run the organization know they're good at their jobs and have seen their process manifest itself in diamond-encrusted rings.
Some of the arms would come through their checkbook. They tried for Masahiro Tanaka; they succeeded with Jon Lester. Others came through savvy: Getting Jason Hammel on the cheap not once but twice, nabbing Kyle Hendricks in a trade. And then there was the case of a tall, well-put-together right-hander who at age 27 looked to the rest of the world like little more than another pitching prospect who simply didn't pan out.
The Cubs saw something different in Jake Arrieta, and when they acquired him July 2, 2013, in exchange for free agent-to-be Scott Feldman, so began the two-year buildup to one of the finest stretches of pitching in history.
Arrieta, armed with a new cutter and simplified delivery, showcased himself in 2014 before cementing himself as one of the National League's finest pitchers in the first four months this season. Heading into August, Arrieta's 2.62 ERA ranked eighth among NL starters. His strikeout-to-walk ratio stood at well over 4 to 1. He was really, really good.
What happened over the past two months does not feel like legitimate baseball. It's like Arrieta is pitching from 55 feet, or throwing to a plate 24 inches wide, or facing batters with two-inch barrels. In the two highest-scoring months baseball has seen in more than five years …
1. Jake Arrieta isn't giving up runs. On Sunday night, Arrieta faced the Pittsburgh Pirates, the hottest team in baseball, winners of eight in a row, and limited them to one hit through seven innings. He struck out nine, didn't walk any and came out of the game only because the Cubs ground the Pirates into a 30-minute-long bottom of the seventh.
This was Arrieta's 18th consecutive quality start, though quality does not begin to describe what he has done over his past 11 starts: 82 1/3 innings, 39 hits, 14 walks, 82 strikeouts and an ERA of 0.44. That's four earned runs in 11 starts. That's eight starts without allowing an earned run. That's not even a hit every two innings.
That's also the reason Arrieta pitched Sunday. His final start of the regular season – one that could help him win the NL Cy Young, should Zack Greinke falter this week – comes Friday, which gives him four days off until the NL wild-card game. The prospect of facing Arrieta again should frighten the Pirates, which makes their series starting Monday against the Cardinals so vital. Sweep it, and maybe, just maybe, they avoid Arrieta.
Nobody wants to face him today, not in a five- or seven-game series and especially not in a one-and-done game. It's the hitter's equivalent to what pitchers face when …
2. Bryce Harper is standing in the batter's box. As though his season weren't incredible enough already, as September winds down Harper's line this month is .390/.529/.870. This wasn't the cherry on top of an MVP season. It was the whole damn cherry tree.
Which makes everything that happened Sunday so confusing. Late in the game, Harper lifted a lazy fly ball to left field. His half-hearted run out of the batter's box looked bad and didn't befit someone who prides himself on hard-nosed play. That said, the very last person who needed to criticize him was Jonathan Papelbon, the would-be savior as the Washington Nationals' season took its first lap around the toilet bowl.
Papelbon, remember, was suspended for three games this week for throwing at Manny Machado, an act Harper rightfully called "tired." As Harper trotted to the dugout, Papelbon castigated him for not running hard. His rebuke did not end with one word. He pushed and prodded. Upon Harper's return to the dugout, he'd heard enough and said to Papelbon, among other things, "Let's [expletive] go." Again, not smart of Harper, and he oughta know his audience better, because Papelbon leapt at Harper, throttled his neck and sent the john of a season even further sewer-bound.
The aggro-bro closer flexing on the NL MVP might not have even been the nadir. Matt Williams, the Nationals' manager, sent Papelbon back in the game for a second inning post-beef. Williams' explanation: He didn't realize how big of a fight actually took place. A major league manager, whose workspace consists of a spare wooden bench, a couple coolers, some sunflower seed packets, a gum bucket and a bat rack, actually told The Washington Post that because he was at the other end of the dugout he didn't know what had happened until he saw the video after the game.
Now, perhaps it's too much to expect a manager to know when his idiot closer is trying to strangle the league's best player. Maybe managing a team these days is so demanding that Williams ought not turn in a lineup card, too, or should leave his starting pitcher in for nine innings, no matter what, every game.
Both, after all, would be every bit the fundamental abdication Williams committed Sunday. As his clubhouse tore further asunder, as his boss' solution self-destructed again, Williams chose ignorance. If a fight happens in the dugout, it is a manager's duty to understand exactly what happened as soon as it happens and balance that with in-game responsibilities. Especially if it involves someone like Bryce Harper. When …
And just as his death grip on the American League MVP was slipping, Donaldson on Sunday hit his third walk-off home run of the season and kept the Toronto Blue Jays in the lead for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. While the idea Donaldson possesses some sort of inimitable clutch gene is overblown, moments such as Sunday's sear themselves into the minds of voters. And in a race that is so incredibly close, perhaps it should.
At the moment, picking Donaldson over …
4. Mike Trout is fraught with peril, because the loudest argument the pro-Donaldson crowd mustered until recently – Donaldson is going to the playoffs, Trout isn't – may not be true by week's end. Trout's Angels have won five straight and sit a half-game back of the Houston Astros, currently in possession of the second wild card.
Trout, too, had his MVP moment over the weekend, not climbing a wall so much as gliding up it to steal back a home run. Such thievery is usually manic, frenzied, a guy leaping and hoping his body contorts in perfect fashion. Trout made his catch look easy. And that's the greatest beauty of his game: the effortlessness with which he makes the spectacular look so simple.
He carries that into one of the biggest weeks of his life, when the Angels head to Oakland to face Felix Doubront, Chris Bassitt and whoever is slated to replace the injured Sonny Gray. Then it's four games in Texas, with Derek Holland, Martin Perez, Colby Lewis and Cole Hamels scheduled. Depending on how the Rangers fare in their series against Detroit to begin the week, Hamels could sit in preparation for the Rangers' division series game against Kansas City or Toronto.
So much of the Rangers' ascent goes back to …
5. Shin-Soo Choo and the return of his swing. At the All-Star break, Choo was hitting .221/.305/.384. In the second year of a seven-year, $130 million contract, Choo was sprinting toward all-time-colossal-bust status at record pace until he rediscovered his plate discipline and, with it, his game.
In the second half, Choo is hitting .352/.468/.565. Only Joey Votto and Harper have better on-base percentages in that time. Choo's September has been even more absurd: .425/.545/.644. That's a major league-best OBP and second-best OPS behind Harper.
Choo terrorized Houston over the weekend, lashing a pair of home runs amid his six hits, and if not for the …
6. Astros' bullpen finally showing some semblance of competence Sunday the team could've found itself too far behind to hope for any chance at a division championship after spending a majority of the season atop the AL West.
The Astros' collapse isn't entirely due to its bullpen. Despite baseball's third-best OPS in September, the Astros rank 15th in runs scored. Their starters' ERA is 4.61 this month. Not good, either. Their bullpen this month, however, has outdone both: a 6.26 ERA. Josh Fields is at 10.80 and Vince Velasquez at 8.68. Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson, to whom the Astros this offseason guaranteed $31 million, are 7.50 and 7.11, respectively. Even Will Harris, who gave up one run in his first 26 2/3 innings this season, has yielded five in nine September innings.
On the bright side, the Astros final six pack of opposing starters goes like this: Roenis Elias, Vidal Nuno, James Paxton, Rubby De La Rosa, Jeremy Hellickson and Robbie Ray. Not a single …
7. Matt Harvey in the bunch. Lost amid the New York Mets' clinch over the weekend was a column from John Harper that said Harvey approached manager Terry Collins this week and said he no longer wanted to abide by an innings limit. Which, just to update the scorecard, means he has gone from letting agent Scott Boras talk about shutting him down to saying he'll be shut down to saying he'll pitch in the playoffs to setting an innings limit to getting frustrated over the innings limit to vowing he'll ignore the innings limit, which takes us back to exactly where we were in the first place.
With so much drama in the NYC, it's kind of hard being M-A-T-T Harvey.
It is, of course, self-inflicted, the rash action of someone who faces a Catch-22. He wants to listen to his agent, who has his future in mind, and he wants to placate his teammates, who depend on him in the present. If Harvey values his teammates' respect that much – and, by his cowing, it would seem he does – this is the right choice. Because were the Mets to lose with Harvey limited, his limitations would linger in his teammates' minds, especially when the other 24 in the clubhouse know that no doctor in the world can say with any measure of confidence that a restricted Harvey has a better chance at staying healthy than one who pitches.
So it's all systems go, apparently, for now, until something changes, which it oughta within the next few days, because this is Matt Harvey and these are the Mets, and they're a good match for one another. Sort of like …
8. Corey Seager has been in Los Angeles since his arrival with the Dodgers. He fits their style and their needs and, in the month he's been a big leaguer, fits right into a lineup that was in desperate need of a bat like his. Unless something happens over the next week to show otherwise – and what could do so isn't particularly apparent – Seager's presence in the Dodgers' playoff lineup is a necessity.
He's only been their best hitter in September, slashing .338/.437/.595 during his major league stint. And, yes, one month is a small sample, and carrying over one great month into the next doesn't necessarily translate. The statistical argument doesn't need to carry the day here because the talent argument more than does so.
In a stacked league, against the Mets in the division series and Cardinals, Pirates or Cubs in the NLCS, the Dodgers need to emphasize ceiling over all. And as much as Jimmy Rollins has found himself catalyzing playoff teams, and as well as Justin Turner hits left-handed pitching, Seager is the best left-side infielder on the Dodgers, and he need not be any part of a platoon. Give him plate appearances and let him do to Don Mattingly what just a couple rookies did for …
9. Brad Ausmus this season. The Detroit Tigers' manager suffered through a year of underachievement staggering enough that multiple outlets had him fired at the end of the season. The Tigers announced Ausmus' return for next season, a move that edified those across baseball who respect him as much as it did engender anger inside a fan base already having trouble coming to terms with its rebuild.
Perhaps that's because rebuilds often include tangible talent, and much of what Ausmus reaped from a sputtering farm system didn't exactly cotton to the major leagues. A dozen rookie pitchers have thrown for the Tigers this season. Their collective numbers: 383 1/3 innings, 418 hits, 151 walks, 269 strikeouts and a 5.31 ERA. John McGraw couldn't win with that.
So Ausmus gets another chance, something that happens plenty in baseball, a sport suited for rebirth. It's why …
10. Jake Arrieta gets to pitch every fifth day for the Cubs and turn teams like the Pirates into goo. The one hit Sunday night, a clean single to left field by Gregory Polanco, was followed by a flailing Starling Marte strikeout, a hit-by-pitch on Andrew McCutchen and a double-play groundball from Aramis Ramirez. Even when Arrieta's sharpness wanes for a moment, he unsheathes his honing steel, sharpens himself and goes back to samurai mode.
The Cubs knew they could find arms. Pitching coach Chris Bosio worked enough wonders to convince them he had a little arm whisperer in him. The quality of Arrieta's stuff in Baltimore showed enough of a base to invest some time and energy. And while this isn't quite yet the Brock-for-Broglio comeuppance for which generations of Cubs fans have waited, it's quite the sight to behold, well beyond the 1.82 ERA and .187 opponents' batting average and 55 percent groundball rate and are we sure this guy isn't some cyborg?
Yes. He is a man, 29 years old, right-handed, still never an All-Star, standing atop a 10-inch mound with not the hope but the knowledge that he won't just be better than those he faces but make them look silly. And time after history-making time, outing after crazy outing, Jake Arrieta does just that, a pitcher found on the scrap heap and ready to take the Cubs to a place they haven't been in more than a century.