Harper-Arrieta Wrigley battle as good as it gets

Today's showdown reminiscent of epic Rose-Gibson, DiMaggio-Feller matchups

May 6th, 2016

Baseball always engages our imaginations. But that's never more true when it is played at its highest level.

Your best against our best. Bring it.

We've got one of those matchups coming today at Wrigley Feild when the Nationals take on the Cubs at 2:20 p.m ET: reigning National League MVP Award winner Bryce Harper vs. Jake Arrieta, who at this point is getting undersold when he's referred to only as the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner.

Arrieta is that and so much more. He's not just the best pitcher in the game at this moment, but he's doing things that no pitcher has ever done -- at least not for as long as he has done them.

When the Brewers scored a run on Arrieta on April 28, former teammate Dan Haren reached out to console him.

"Saw you gave up a run, hang in there,'' Haren tweeted. "Thinking of you.''

In terms of sheer dominance over his past 26 regular-season starts -- 22-1 with an 0.85 ERA and two no-hitters -- Arrieta has put his name alongside the greatest in the history of the game. So think of Harper vs. Arrieta in terms of the historic parallels.

Not just ones like Andrew McCutchen vs. Clayton Kershaw in 2014 or Miguel Cabrera vs. David Price the year before. As great as those duels were, you've got to dig deeper for what awaits today.

Think Pete Rose vs. Bob Gibson in 1969, the year after Gibson compiled an 1.12 ERA and helped prompt Major League officials to lower the mound. Or Joe DiMaggio vs. Bob Feller in 1947.

Maybe Walter Johnson trying to shut down Eddie Collins in 1914. Or, to put a Chicago slant on it, how about Mordecai "Three Finger Brown'' against Honus Wagner in 1908, when the Cubs played at West Side Park and were managed by their first baseman, Frank Chance?

You can argue that Arrieta and Harper haven't stood the test of time. That's true. But there's no denying that over the past two seasons, they are performing at levels that every fan dreamed about as a kid.

To know that they're going to be staring at each other from 60 feet, 6 inches away -- both with wide eyes buried under their stone faces -- is one of those treasures the game gives us.

If the last of the three or four times they'll face each other happens to come with the game on the line, oh boy. That would be October drama in May, even if this Cubs-Nationals series settles nothing more significant than next week's power rankings.

DiMaggio owned Feller. He had more career hits (66) and home runs (11) off Feller than anyone else he faced, ending his career with a .342 batting average and a 1.057 OPS against the Cleveland legend. The first time they met in 1947, a year after Feller led the American League with 26 wins and 10 shutouts, Feller got a win for the Indians at Yankee Stadium, but DiMaggio was 2-for-5.

Rose didn't mind facing Gibson. He hit .307 against him, drawing more walks than the times that Gibson struck him out. The first time Rose faced Gibson in 1969, Rose went 3-for-4 with a solo home run. He had another three-hit game off Gibson later that season, that time with a triple.

What should you expect with Harper vs. Arrieta? Probably a few more curveballs and changeups than you normally see from Arrieta, with him working on the outside part of the plate. That's the way he's attacked Harper the past two times they've met, and it has worked.

Harper is 4-for-12 with one double and two walks in his 14 plate appearances against Arrieta. But you wonder if either of them remembers Harper's four hits. They all came in 2012, when the 26-year-old version of Arrieta went 3-9 with a 6.20 ERA for the Orioles, who were unsuccessful in trying to help him refine his mechanics to improve his fastball command.

Arrieta has faced the Nationals once in each of the previous three seasons he's been with the Cubs. In those games, Harper has gone 0-for-7 with one walk and two strikeouts. Harper drove in a run with a bases-loaded groundout when he couldn't hit one of Arrieta's moving 95-mph fastballs flush last June. And in 2014, he lined a changeup deep to center field for an out.

It will be interesting to see how the Cubs defend Harper, as spray charts show he hits the ball up the middle or to left field off Arrieta. The Cubs' ace has been throwing more fastballs this season (62 percent) than he did last year (51 percent), but that may be because he's frequently been working with big leads.

In becoming the first Cub since Brown in 1908 to win his first six starts, Arrieta benefited from 52 runs of support while he and the relievers that followed him have allowed only eight runs. That plus 44 in run differential goes a long way toward explaining how the Cubs have steamrolled opponents more at the start of a season than any team since the 1905 New York Giants.

While the Nats won only 83 games last season, Harper hit .330 and led the league with 42 home runs, which made him an easy pick for the NL MVP Award. He's been on track with his power hitting out of the gate, but he is making more outs than he'd like.

It won't be a surprise if Harper hits his first homer off Arrieta today. Nor if the bearded Cub hands him an 0-for-4 with two or three strikeouts. The only thing that is for sure is that you should check it out. These guys don't disappoint.