Still Jake Arrieta.
Still the pitcher who found himself at 28 years old, who became elite at 29, who humored the notion he couldn't possibly be as special a year later, who on Thursday night in Cincinnati no-hit the Cincinnati Reds.
Still that guy.
The no-hitter was Arrieta's second in eight months, five of those months encompassing the offseason, and so more accurately his second no-hitter – after the Los Angeles Dodgers on Aug. 30 – in 11 regular-season starts.
In between no-hitters, Arrieta won five times in September, two games in the postseason before tiring in the National League championship series, then the NL Cy Young Award, then his first three starts of 2016. Since early last summer he is 20-1 with a 0.86 ERA.
That was the pitcher who Thursday night strode to the mound at Great America Ball Park – blue jersey, gray pants, the brim of his cap straight and taut – and took apart the Reds over 119 pitches. Pitching before a sizeable number of Cubs fans, particularly behind his own dugout, the 6-foot-4 right-hander possessed his now familiar hard fastball – still humming at 95 mph in the eighth inning – along with all the variations off it.
He rode a huge lead – 4-0 after two innings, 9-0 after six innings, 13-0 after seven innings and ending at 16-0 – and honed in on the strike zone after walking one batter in the second, fourth and sixth innings. He finished with four walks, including the leadoff hitter in the ninth. Arrieta hadn't thrown more than 100 pitches in his prior three starts, and when he reached 100 against the Reds he required four more outs.
"I mean, that was a blast," Arrieta told reporters afterward. "That was fun."
Against the backdrop of this maybe, possibly, oh could it be the Cubs' year, 108 years after their last one, and with the Cubs already 12-4 in this year, Arrieta turned and jumped into the arms of veteran catcher David Ross.
Ross, 39, began his career in 2002. He has said he will retire after 2016. He'd never caught a big-league no-hitter.
"You know," Arrieta said, "that's probably what makes it so special for me, is giving him that in his last season. That's special."
During their embrace, Arrieta said, "He just kept telling me, 'Thank you, thank you.' It's just a great way for him to go out, another box he can check now."
Bearded, stoic and broad in the shoulders, Arrieta faced 29 Reds, two over the minimum. He struck out six and got 12 ground-ball outs.
"Man, god, it felt sloppy from the get-go," he said. "The pregame 'pen was as sloppy as it was in L.A. before that no-hitter, so I don't put a lot into it.
"I was a little off with my command but was able to keep them off balance and later in the game pounded the strike zone with some good movement and keeping the ball down. Pitching to contact was the goal today and I did a pretty good job at that."
Arrieta held onto his hug of pitching coach Chris Bosio a little longer than most. About three years ago, when Arrieta was traded from Baltimore to the Cubs, it was Bosio who told Arrieta he was free to be himself. To chase who he wanted to be, who he knew he could be. It's bled into 2016.
This was the 295th no-hitter in major league history (he also, remember, had the 293rd), his two separated by Max Scherzer's no-hitter against the New York Mets on the penultimate day of last season. It was the Cubs' 15th no-hitter. It was the first time the Reds had been no-hit in the regular season in 45 years.
And yet none of it seemed unusual. None of it seemed surprising. Even the starts that begin with a dash of imprecision, he is more dominant when it's all counted up. He is just better.
This night was no different.
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