ESNY

The Chicago Cubs are back in the postseason for the first time since 2008.  Jake Arrieta is a major reason why.

By Bryan Pol

Late Friday night, the Chicago Cubs, in light a of loss by the once-defending champion San Francisco Giants, became the third team from the NL Central to make the postseason in the National League, thanks largely to the masterful efforts of Cy Young hopeful Jake Arrieta, MLB’s first 20-game winner in 2015.

The Cubs, who lost on Friday 3-2 to the Pittsburgh Pirates, whom they trail by 4 1/2 games for the NL’s first wild card spot, have balanced youth and veteran pitching to suddenly become postseason darlings in the National League, with a 1969 rematch of the NLCS against the New York Mets, who clinched the National League East behind a solid Matt Harvey outing on Saturday in a 10-2 victory over the Cincinnati Reds, a very real and compelling possibility.

Leading the way for the Cubs, who clinched a postseason berth for the first time since 2008, but have not won a playoff series since 2003, when Chicago endured a dark, harrowing, seven-game NLCS defeat to the eventual champion Florida Marlins, is none other than Arrieta, acquired in 2013 as a middle-of-the-rotation arm in a deal with the Baltimore Orioles, who sent Arrieta and Pedro Strop to the Cubs for Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger.

Immediately upon acquiring him, the Cubs sent Arrieta to Triple-A Iowa; he would not make his debut with Chicago until July 30, 2013, in game two of a double header against the Brewers, in which the right-hander earned a no-decision in a 3-2 loss despite surrendering only one run in six strong innings.

The 29 year old Arrieta, a middling prospect who went 20-25 with a 5.46 ERA in four seasons with the O’s, would be quite stellar in 2014, pitching to 10 wins and 5 losses, managing a sterling 2.53 ERA and a 0.98 WHIP.

Despite his 2014 campaign, Arrieta was expected to play second fiddle in 2015 to one-time Boston Red Sox ace Jon Lester, acquired in the offseason by his former general manager Theo Epstein for a whopping six-year, $155 million contract.  Lester, only 10-12 on the year with a so-so 3.53 ERA, and despite all his postseason accolades with Boston, has largely deferred to Arrieta, in the midst of what projects to be an award-winning year.

Arrieta’s magnum opus, a no-hitter against the Los Angeles Dodgers on August 30, in which he fanned 12 batters, a season-high, was the high mark on what has been a dominant season for the one-time Oriole.

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At 20-6, Arrieta has not lost since July 25, a 5-0 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.  In the season’s second half, he has been historically brilliant, going 10-1 with a minuscule 0.86 ERA and an even more diminutive 0.79 WHIP.  For all intents and purpose, Arrieta has been unhittable, holding opponents to a .158 BAA, striking out 97 batters in 94 1/3 innings. Altogether, Arrieta boasts a 1.88 ERA and 0.90 WHIP on the season, in addition to an ERA+ of 210.

In addition to leading the NL with 20 wins, Arrieta has also hurled four complete games and three shutouts, both of which lead the league, including his no-no in August. Arrieta is second in the NL in WAR for pitchers (8.0), second in ERA, second in WHIP, second in hits per 9 IP (6.13), tenth in strikeouts per 9 IP (9.17), second in IP (216.0), fourth in strikeouts (220), eighth in K/BB ratio (4.58), second in ERA+, second in allowing  the least home runs per 9 IP (0.42) and second in FIP (2.45).

In many cases, Arrieta is second only to Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, both of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who currently lead the NL West, tied with the Mets for home-field advantage in a possible NLDS matchup.

Consider, though, that no other pitcher on the Chicago staff is quite like Arrieta, who pitches in a hitter-friendly park in Wrigley Field, where the right-hander has still mustered a 2.11 ERA and a 0.91 ERA in 14 starts.  He is the Cubs’ go-to, bonafide ace, leading a pack of youngsters with little to no major league experience.  He is not merely a Cy Young candidate:  he, too, might be in the running for the NL MVP award.

Arrieta, no doubt, would take the mound in a one-game playoff against the rival Pirates, and in potentially going again in a five-game NLDS, could, along with Lester and a band of young stars in Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Starlin Castro, Addison Russell, Anthony Rizzo, and Kyle Schwarber, push the Cubs into the NLCS for a chance to exorcise the horror of the Steve Bartman incident.

While the likes of the Toronto Blue Jays and the Kansas City Royals are entering this postseason with high hopes, the former not having played October baseball in 22 years, the latter not having won a division title in 30 years until doing so on Friday night, Chicago has not been to a World Series since 1945, and has not won a title in 107 years.  While the Cubs are not favorites to represent the National League in this year’s Fall Classic, they are likely to make October baseball on the North Side a regular occurrence, especially given the young talent already there and the young talent still on its way:  Baseball Prospectus projected the Cubs as having the top farm system in the majors prior to the start of the 2015 season.

Yes, the Mets have a host of vibrant young arms, and the Dodgers feature a tremendous tandem in Greinke and Kershaw, but the Cubs have their man in Jake Arrieta, whose club will likely play each series as the underdog, but no matter:  the former TCU product fares better on the road, to the tune of a 12-1 record, a 1.68 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, and .191 BAA in 17 starts.

On ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, Arrieta will look to stymy the Pirates, as he takes the mound looking for his 21st win, extending his current win streak to ten games.

And while their young bats are bound to struggle once the second season is underway, the Cubs can rely on Jake Arrieta to continue his dominant ways, perhaps in the same way Madison Bumgarner did for the Giants only a year ago.

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