Arrieta's strong start: a play in three acts

April 26th, 2021

CHICAGO -- The five-run unraveling by the Cubs’ bullpen in the ninth inning on Sunday skewed an afternoon that had been defined by pitching. This was Jake Arrieta against Brandon Woodruff in a battle of “who will flinch first.”

Arrieta wavered -- only for the slightest of moments -- and that was all it took. Woodruff continued his April tormenting of Chicago's lineup, while Arrieta's few first-inning missteps sent the North Siders on the way to a 6-0 loss at Wrigley Field.

"That's a game he deserves a win," Cubs second baseman Nico Hoerner said of Arrieta.

That feeling stemmed from the way Arrieta not only minimized the damage in the opening frame, but then locked in for the remainder of his six-inning outing. The veteran yielded two hits and struck out eight (his most since May 25, 2019), including the final three batters he faced.

Arrieta's performance can be broken down into three segments:

1. The first four batters
A Cubs nemesis for years, Kolten Wong began the afternoon with another hit to frustrate the Wrigley faithful. He slashed an Arrieta offering into the left-center gap for a double, and then hustled to third on a single from Omar Narváez.

Pitching in cold conditions, Arrieta then struggled to find his command against Avisaíl García, who drew a walk to load the bases.

"It's kind of been a pattern with him," Cubs manager David Ross said of Arrieta. "Once he settles in, it just really rolls, right? A couple hits jumped him pretty early on, not wanting to give up any runs, trying to find that release point.

Next came Travis Shaw, who worked the count full. Arrieta elected to go up and in with a sinker, and the righty placed the pitch right near the edge of the zone. Home-plate umpire Mark Ripperger deemed the pitch a ball, resulting in a run-scoring walk

"The bases-loaded walk to Shaw, pretty nice pitch," Arrieta said. "I feel like it could've gone either way. Not a bad call. Not a bad take by Shaw. But, I threw it pretty much exactly where I would like to put that pitch in that situation."

2. The next 15 batters
Following those first four batters, Arrieta started Keston Hiura off with a ball. That prompted a brief visit to the mound from pitching coach Tommy Hottovy.

"He was just giving me a breather," Arrieta said. "He wanted to slow things down."

Apparently, Hottovy's quick chat helped.

Arrieta finished off the 28-pitch first inning by setting down Hiura (infield flyout), Billy McKinney (strikeout) and Jackie Bradley Jr. (groundout) in order. In fact, that initiated a string of 15 consecutive batters retired on 59 pitches, dating back to that Hottovy mound visit.

Arrieta was leaning heavily on his sinker as per usual (63 percent in the 101-pitch outing), and the effectiveness of that pitch helped his slider/cutter and curve net four swinging strikes apiece. He also picked spots for the changeup, which was a key pitch in his previous outing against the Mets.

"I've said a couple times," Ross said, "you have such trust that, once he finds it and when he does find it, he's going to be just fine. And so, it's just a matter of him locking it in."

3. The final escape
Arrieta said the primary factor behind his in-game groove was actually the performance being fashioned by Woodruff.

In each of Woodruff's three starts against Chicago this season, the righty has opened things with at least three no-hit innings. Dating back to his final start against the Cubs last year, the Brewers' starter has given up just one run on seven hits with 34 strikeouts against three walks in 26 innings.

"Runs are going to be at a premium," Arrieta said. "So, giving up one in the first and being able to squeeze my way out of it, I understood that that was about as much as I could give up, if we wanted a chance to win the ballgame."

Arrieta encountered another jam in the sixth, when Narváez drew a leadoff walk and García reached via error. From there, Arrieta again locked in.

He struck out Shaw with a curve that broke low and inside. Arrieta finished off Hiura with a curve that disappeared low and away. And then the Cubs' starter ended a nine-pitch battle with McKinney with a strikeout on a slider at the top of the zone.

Arrieta walked off the hill with his ERA sitting at 2.57 on the season.

"He doesn't give in," Ross said. "He still has a lot of confidence in himself. You feel that from the dugout. I think his teammates feel that. He's just really turned into the guy that we feel like he could be."