PITTSBURGH -- Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon and pitcher Jake Arrieta continue to exude a positive vibe despite an inconsistent season for both the pitcher and the team. How rough has it been for the former Cy Young winner? Including his 4⅔ innings pitched Saturday night against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Arrieta has failed to complete at least five innings in four starts this season. He had zero such starts in his previous two seasons combined.
Asked if he was frustrated by the lack of overall innings, Arrieta wouldn’t bite.
“I’m not that bothered by it,” the right-hander said after the Cubs' 4-3 loss. “Last time out it was the cut on my finger. This time was unfortunate. I wasn’t hindered by the finger. It was more so battling the moisture and maintaining grip on the ball.”
If it’s not one thing with the Cubs of 2017, it’s something else. That’s particularly true for Arrieta, who has battled with the following afflictions: a velocity dip on his fastball, a cut on his thumb, first-inning woes, and now sweat, which caused him to lose command -- you guessed it -- during Saturday's fifth inning. He threw two wild pitches and hit a batter before Maddon had seen enough. Arrieta similarly lost command in the fifth inning in his previous start as well.
“Looked for some dry territory,” Arrieta continued. “Rosin, dirt, pants. Couldn’t find it. Tried to take some off, hit a guy in the back. Threw a curveball to the backstop. It’s a helpless feeling when you can’t put pressure on the ball and execute a pitch.”
Think about how helpless it is to watch the Cubs, who have struggled through their first 67 games this season. They’ve looked like anything but champions. Every big win is seemingly followed by a step back. They scored 14 against the New York Mets on Tuesday, then lost the next night. On Friday, they torched the Pirates' bullpen for six ninth-inning runs but then did little against starter Ivan Nova and reliever Felipe Rivero on Saturday. But Arrieta and Maddon won’t go negative about their situation. It’s always the bright side, which has little to do with the Cubs and everything to do with the division they play in.
“As poorly as we feel like we have played overall, I think most of these guys will agree I like where we’re at as far as the standings [and] how much time we have left to make some things happen,” Arrieta said of the Cubs, who finished Saturday night 2½ games behind first-place Milwaukee in the National League Central. “We’re in this position with one team ahead of us, which is in striking distance for us with a ton of time. We’re not where we want to be, but we’re not far off. That’s a little optimism there. There’s no reason to be down.”
Factually, he’s right, but keeping such a positive vibe in the face of such inconsistency can’t be easy. It’s certainly not for the fans, but the players and their manager can’t afford to be so emotional. They refuse to.
“I was pleased with the game,” Maddon actually said.
If you take away the sweat issue with Arrieta, Maddon said, and reliever Justin Grimm's curveball to Andrew McCutchen, who hit it out to give the Pirates a 4-2 lead in the sixth, he “otherwise had nothing to complain about.”
Are you buying that?
The inconsistent play has even found its way to the Cubs' best hitter, with Kris Bryant slumping after striking out three times Saturday; he hasn’t put a ball in play since mid-game Wednesday, and he’s struck out five times and walked twice -- once intentionally -- since.
“Chasing pitches out of the strike zone,” Maddon said. “He’s expanding his strike zone. Whenever he goes badly it’s just that he’s opening it up.”
Just as shortstop Addison Russell is coming out of his season-long slump, Bryant goes into one. So it goes for the Cubs, who have never been worse than two games below .500 or better than four over this season. Now comes a sweaty Arrieta, who was forced out of the game early, exposing Chicago's bullpen. The McCutchen home run can be seen as the difference in the game. So now Arrieta has to add another goal when he takes the ball next time out.
“Learn how to manage the sweat,” he said. “Hands were slick. Rosin didn’t help.”
Add his sweaty night to Ben Zobrist's wrist, Kyle Hendricks' tendinitis, Kyle Schwarber's .172 batting average and a host of other ailments or below-the-norm production, and you can see why the Cubs can’t get over the hump.