By Bruce Levine–

NEW YORK (CBS) — The otherwordly pitcher once known as Jake Arrieta has returned to human form for the second straight start, and the Cubs now have a hole to climb of in part because of that.

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In his team’s 4-1 loss to the Mets in Game 2 of the NLCS on Sunday night at Citi Field, Cubs ace Arrieta gave up three runs before retiring a batter, and that’s all the hosts would need to take a 2-0 series lead.

On a cold night with the wind chill at 35 degrees, Arrieta came out of the bullpen with no sleeves. He appeared up in the zone initially, surrendering a leadoff single to Curtis Granderson and an RBI double to David Wright to deep center field. The white-hot Daniel Murphy — who has homered in four straight games — then stayed on a tear, thumping a low, inside curveball into the right-field seats to give New York a 3-0 lead.

“The first inning, they came out pretty aggressive,” a disappointed Arrieta said.  “They took advantage of a couple of balls that were elevated. The curveball to Murphy was not that bad a pitch. He is just swinging the bat tremendously right now. He is just doing his damage. I just did not do a good enough job of minimizing the damage early in the ballgame.”

Having loosened up, Arrieta retired the next six batters in order, four via the striekout. But the Mets continued to run his pitch count up, to 65 after the end of the third inning, when they plated a fourth run on a pair of walks, a stolen base by Granderson and an RBI infield single from Yoenis Cespedes.

Arrieta wasn’t interested in talking much about his drop in velocity. A power pitcher, he was down about three mph from his usual 96-mph fastball. He’s already exceeded his previous career innings high by about 90 innings this season. When asked whether the big workload is catching up to Arrieta, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said he couldn’t deny that it might but that he wasn’t sure.

Arrieta ended up going five innings, taking the loss in allowing four runs on four hits and two walks while striking out eight. It was tied for his shortest start of the entire season.

“All my preparation was the same as before,” Arrieta said. “I felt fine, but I knew the high-end velocity was not there. I threw quite a few changeups to offset that.”

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The bigger problem for the Cubs was Mets rookie right-hander Noah Syndergaard, who was dominant early and held Chicago’s lineup in check throughout. Through five frames, all Syndergaard allowed was a Kris Bryant single and a walk to Dexter Fowler, while he struck out eight in that stretch.

He got a big assist from Chicago native Granderson, who made a sensational catch while crashing into the right-field wall in the second inning to rob Chris Coghlan of a probably home run.

Syndergaard was pulled with two outs in the sixth innings after he gave up an RBI double to Bryant that plated Fowler. Lefty Jon Niese was called on to get Anthony Rizzo out, and he did just that by fanning the Cubs slugger on a 3-2 changeup to end the threat.

The Mets’ power pitchers have held the vaunted Cubs’ sluggers down during the first two games, as Chicago has scored just three runs and gotten 10 hits combined in the first 18 innings of the series.

The NLCS now moves to Chicago for Game 3 on Tuesday evening, when Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks will be asked to hold off the Mets at Wrigley Field.

“The start in St. Louis was a big learning experience for me,” Hendricks said in reference to a Game 2 victory for the Cubs in the NLDS in which he started. “Being on the road in that ballpark was a big learning experience for me. We are down two, but we are going home, where we will be a little more comfortable. I learned that you may have some nerves going into it. Once you go out to the mound, it’s the same game.”

The Mets have now chopped two big limbs off of the Cubs tree by beating top-of-the-rotation starters in Arrieta and Jon Lester on back-to-back night. It puts the Cubs in a deep hole to try and climb out of.

“They have good arms, as we do,” Arrieta said. “A lot of runs can be scored at Wrigley. We are just going to have to bear down and take it game by game. We will try to get back into the series with the three games coming at home.”

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Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.