Arrieta matched zeros with Seattle lefty Wade Miley for seven-plus innings. He relied on a fastball-heavy arsenal that induced 12 ground ball outs and kept a brisk game moving along. He suddenly lost his command to begin the eighth, when he missed on eight of his last nine pitches and walked his final two batters.
“Everything was good today,” Arrieta said. “Obviously, the two walks in the eighth put us in a bind. We were still right there.”
It was a sharp, if not dominant, afternoon for the Cubs ace, who threw fastballs on 77 percent of his pitches, his second-highest total this season. As for those runners he left out there, that’s where Chicago’s new powerhouse bullpen comes in — at least, that’s how the script goes. When asked if he felt good about his chances for a win when he departed, Arrieta asked rhetorically, “Wouldn’t you?”
At first, it went according to plan. Hector Rondon, the closer-turned-setup man, came on and did his part. After a sacrifice, he got Norichika Aoki on a roller to Kris Bryant, who nailed pinch runner Guillermo Heredia at the plate — after a replay reversal.
With lefties Leonys Martin and Robinson Cano due up, Cubs manager Joe Maddon summoned the left-handed Chapman into the game. This is the luxury of having three closer-quality relievers, as Maddon does in Rondon, Pedro Strop and the fire-balling Chapman.
“That part of that batting order just yells his name,” Maddon said. “That’s the whole point. To go through that moment and, if he’s available, to not utilize him and we lose that game, I’d have been really upset with myself.”
For Chapman, it was a chance for his second four-out save as a Cub. He did not have any saves of that duration for the Yankees this season before he was traded to Chicago earlier this week. After Saturday's game, Chapman said he’s willing to get four outs, even if it isn't his cup of tea.
“It's not [my] favorite thing to do, but that's [my] job,” Chapman said via Strop, who translated. “He's the manager. The decision that [put me] out [there] in that situation, [I’m] just ready to do anything.”
Alas, Martin barreled up a fastball and lined it into the left-center field gap, which scored two runs and gave the Mariners a lead they never relinquished. Chapman retired the first seven batters he faced as a Cub, but suddenly he had his first blown save.
“It really just comes down to the two walks there,” Maddon said. “That started the whole inning. Almost escaped it. Give Martin credit. I just give the guy credit. He squared up a 100 mph fastball and put it in the gap. That just tells you how good he is.”
The loss snapped a three-game win streak for the first-place Cubs, whose lead in the NL Central shrank to six games pending St. Louis’ game at Miami. That’s the closest the Cardinals have been since May 23. The Cubs fell to 56-2 when leading after seven innings, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“At the end of the day, we played really well,” Maddon said. “Jake pitched great. Just the two walks at the end bit us a little bit.”
The Cubs have lost six of Arrieta’s past seven starts — remarkable for a guy who was all but unbeatable for virtually the length of an entire season, the second half of 2015 and the first few weeks of this campaign. Still, he and his manager are optimistic that things are heading in the right direction. But for one Martin swing, the story would have been about Arrieta getting back on his Cy Young path.
“Jake was outstanding,” Maddon said while mulling over the situation in the eighth. “He had 7-8-9 coming up there, and in your mind’s eye, he could do 7-8-9 [with his pitch count at] 89 pitches. Then you turn it over with all those lefties to Aroldis in the ninth. It just didn’t play out that way.”
When Chapman comes out of the pen, and the buzz passes through the crowd, and the anticipation hits just before his first radar reading is flashed on the scoreboard, it’s easy to mistake him as infallible on the mound. But of course, nobody has ever been that — not even Arrieta, though he looked that way for so long. Still, if the scenario that went against the Cubs on Saturday plays out many times the rest of the season, they stand to be in good shape.
“Every hitter just tries to come in there and do their job,” Chapman said. “It was just [my] time to lose.”