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ST. LOUIS – The price of perfection is the pain that comes with mediocrity. Because Jake Arrieta is intimately familiar with the former and ill-acquainted with the latter, and because baseball delights in humbling even its demigods, a day like Wednesday was inevitable. Jake Arrieta, superhuman pitcher, would be mere mortal for one afternoon. And, it turns out, that was OK.
"Picked a pretty good day to be [expletive]," he said.
Welcome to life with the Chicago Cubs, where the best pitcher on the planet not named Clayton Kershaw can put up his first mediocre regular-season outing in, oh, a year and his teammates respond by pummeling the pitching staff of their bitter rival for a second consecutive day. The 9-8 victory Wednesday over the St. Louis Cardinals wasn't pretty. Considering the previous week, they weren't terribly concerned about aesthetics.
In the course of it, with six losses in eight games, the Cubs showed they were indeed corporeal, and that wee mite of doubt about their long-term viability showed up just to say hi. As they've done with everything in their path, the Cubs proceeded to pull out a size-20 boot and stomp it to nothingness, first with a convincing win Tuesday against the Cardinals and then showing Wednesday they needn't Arrieta at his Cy Young best to win.
Gone was his MLB-record streak of 29 consecutive starts allowing three runs or fewer; he made the sin of allowing four. Extended was his streak of 23 consecutive starts won by his team, tying the MLB record held by Kris Medlen over three seasons' worth of starts. Arrieta is now 9-0 this season. His ERA is 1.72.
"He's 9-0 and he's been struggling a bit," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "That's not bad."
Struggles are relative, of course. Most teams in baseball would love to struggle like the Cubs, who are now on pace for only 112 wins after ending a streak that had seen them lose their previous 14 getaway-day games in St. Louis. They've scored the third-most runs in baseball. They've allowed the fewest. They've drawn 25 more walks than every other team. Opponents are hitting an even .200 against them. They don't hit into double plays. Their third baseman has improved his strikeout rate by more than 50 percent. Their second baseman might be the hottest hitter in baseball at the moment. They're so good their closer rarely gets to, you know, close. And so when Arrieta throws up a stinker – or at least a stinker for him, seeing as there have been more than 300 starts this season worse than Arrieta's five-inning, seven-hit, four-run, one-walk, four-strikeout line Wednesday – they're equipped enough to shrug it off.
"He's not going to throw up zeroes every time," Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant said. "We realize that, and I think he does, too."
Certainly Arrieta realizes it. That doesn't mean he accepts it. One need only see the resplendence of his beard to intuit the perfectionism that guides Arrieta. Seriously, look at that thing. It's glorious. The only shock is that he carves hitters up every bit as well as he does facial hair, and it's a testament to the Cardinals' lineup that they took decent pitches from Arrieta and managed to do damage. It was the second straight game the Cardinals got to Arrieta, after they touched him up for four runs in Game 3 of the National League Division Series.
"We know," Arrieta said, "they'll be close on our heels to the very end."
Maybe in the vantage point of the rearview mirror, but heel close? Nah. Nah not just to the Cardinals but the Pirates and the rest of their NL rivals and those across the American League divide. Over the course of a 162-game season, no other team can compete with these Cubs – a healthy team, a deep team, a resource-rich team. Injuries can change all of those things; until they do, the Cubs have reason for optimism.
It's Bryant striking out in just 19.1 percent of his plate appearances after 30.6 percent in his rookie season. And it's Ben Zobrist not just walking but hitting for power with it, which is tougher than one might think. The major league walk leader for May is Bryce Harper. He's slugging .311 this month. Others ahead of Zobrist: Paul Goldschmidt (.370 SLG), Joey Votto (.406), Jose Bautista (.450). Zobrist, with 15 walks and seven strikeouts, is slugging .663. His at-bats are an exemplar for the young Cubs core, the exact sort of thing Chicago hoped for when it signed Zobrist to a four-year, $56 million deal this offseason.
Zobrist has been gangbusters, and John Lackey is the exact sort of No. 3 starter the Cubs needed, and while Jason Heyward has been a $180 million mess – the perfect scapegoat for a team that would need one – the Cubs haven't, and he's been spared even more grief by their excellence.
Ultimately, much as one player on a 25-man roster can, Arrieta defines these Cubs – where they've been, where they are, where they're going. He is their bellwether. Bryant called Wednesday "a great way to end a pretty average road trip," and that was about right. Even on a day when Arrieta was searching, the Cubs were still better than one of the better teams in the NL.
Afterward, Arrieta was asked whether before his next start Tuesday against the Dodgers – sadly, the baseball gods did not grant an Arrieta-vs.-Kershaw matchup at Wrigley Field – he might consider doing anything differently.
"I'll maybe throw left-handed or underhand," he said, and that would be a shame, because he is quite enjoyable to watch right-handed, and he probably wouldn't be as good left-handed or underhanded, though this is Jake Arrieta, man of men, hero of hirsute, compass of Cubs, and even on days when he ain't right, he's still right enough.
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