By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — The intensity rises not just that one out of every five days, but each time Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta steps foot inside a ballpark.
He approaches each day the same, part of the preparation to be great. Arrieta is a hard man to find hours before games. He moves through the clubhouse with a forceful stride from one task to the next — meetings, treatment, Pilates, hydrotherapy or whatever else is on the agenda.
Arrieta’s rise from struggling prospect to Cy Young winner was something he earned. He’s a perfectionist with his craft. He can hope that work all pays off with a mega-deal come next offseason, but Arrieta’s contract season isn’t off to a great start. He isn’t pitching like a $200-million man.
Wednesday night at Wrigley Field brought Arrieta’s fourth win on the season, a 5-4 Cubs victory over the Phillies that pushed his record to 4-1 on the year. But it marked yet another outing in which he struggled for stretches and didn’t perform up to his standards.
The 31-year-old Arrieta pitched six innings and allowed three earned runs, good enough to check the box for a quality start. He was trailing 3-1 before a four-run rally in the sixth inning put him in line for the victory, which Wade Davis closed out with his seventh save.
Ultimately, team victories are what’s most important for Arrieta, but he’s admittedly working through some issues. When Arrieta was at his best in 2015, he relied mostly on a sharp sinker and slider. He hasn’t been at that peak form thus far in 2017.
“I’m not locked in right now to the point where I can use two pitches,” Arrieta said. “So I think a more quality mix of four or five pitches has been kind of the theme for me moving forward or at least for the past month. Once I get completely right mechanically and with command, maybe I only use two or three pitches to get through seven innings.”
Arrieta continued a recent Cubs trend on Wednesday night with a rocky first frame. He allowed two earned runs with two outs and dug his team an early hole with a 27-pitch inning.
From there, Arrieta ditched his power-pitching game and began working for weak contact. Instead of relying on his two best pitches, he incorporated the four-seam fastball and changeup into his repertoire. Arrieta has allowed 11 earned runs in the first innings of his last three outings but just two runs after that opening frame.
The key has been returning to the dugout and adjusting his game. That means tweaking the mindset from power to efficiency.
Arrieta enjoyed a historic run of dominance in 2015, finishing the season with silly numbers, especially in a stretch run in which he went 12-1 with an 0.75 ERA over 15 starts and 107 1/3 innings. He threw the sinker nearly every other pitch and utilized the breaking ball around 40 percent of the time.
For whatever reason, Arrieta doesn’t have the same command now. If he knew why, this wouldn’t be an issue anymore, but Arrieta has instead been left utilizing his fastball or changeup to force contact. It has allowed him to be effective but far from dominant.
“At this point, I’m just grinding through it,” Arrieta said, “trying to establish strikes in the zone with my pitches, using some information the opposition gives me and kind of moving forward in that regard.”
The story of Arrieta has been well-documented. He arrived in the Cubs organization in 2013, coming over from Baltimore after years of struggles. The trade will go down as an all-timer, especially after Arrieta was an important piece to the Cubs’ first World Series title in 108 years.
Arrieta found Cy Young form in Chicago by working two pitches with deception. Each time he took the mound, it seemed something special could happen. But Arrieta regressed from superhero to human last season and is left adjusting once again.
“Once you think you have it figured out, you kind of get bit in the ass,” Arrieta said.
Come Thursday morning, Arrieta will be pacing through Wrigley Field in a cut-off shirt. Rare is there a day off for the man so dedicated to his craft. The intensity is a constant.
Arrieta will work hard to find that form.