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Spotlight Is on Jake Arrieta to Overcome Checkered Postseason Past

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistOctober 26, 2016

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 18:  Jake Arrieta #49 of the Chicago Cubs looks on against the Los Angeles Dodgers in game three of the National League Championship Series at Dodger Stadium on October 18, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

Jake Arrieta, line one is for you. It's destiny callingand it's urgent.

Don't worry. We're not going to get too melodramatic after the Chicago Cubs' dispiriting 6-0 loss to the Cleveland Indians in Game 1 of the World Series at Progressive Field on Tuesday.

Wednesday's Game 2, which will begin an hour early at 7:08 p.m. ET on Fox because of the threat of rain, isn't a must-win for Chicago.

It's a best-of-seven series; the math is simple.

It is, however, a really-should-win, as well as an opportunity for Arrieta to overcome his checkered postseason past.

Overall, Arrieta owns a 4.11 ERA in 30.2 career playoff innings. That screams mediocrity, but the story is far more complex.

All of Arrieta's postseason appearances have come over the past two seasons with Chicago. In the 2015 National League Wild Card Game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, he twirled nine shutout innings with no walks and 11 strikeouts.

That same year, Arrieta won the NL Cy Young Award with a 1.77 ERA and 236 strikeouts in 229 innings. Still, he wobbled in his next two postseason starts.

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He surrendered four earned runs in 5.2 innings in Game 3 of the division series against the St. Louis Cardinals, which the Cubs ultimately won 8-6. Then he gave up four earned runs in five innings in a Game 2 loss in the National League Championship Series to the New York Mets.

The Cubs were swept in that series. As for Arrieta, the sample-size explanation jibed at the time.

Arrieta, however, slumped in the second half of 2016 and particularly in September and October, when he allowed 27 hits, 11 walks and 15 earned runs in 29.1 innings.

That fecklessness leaked into the playoffs. He yielded 12 hits and six earned runs in his starts in Game 3 of the division series versus the San Francisco Giants and Game 3 of the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, both Cubs losses.

Chicago maintained its momentum and nailed down the franchise's first pennant since 1945 thanks to an offense that leads all postseason qualifiers with 48 runs scored and a pitching staff that has gotten superlative performances from the likes of Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks. 

Lester went unbeaten in the Cubs' series against San Francisco and Los Angeles, rekindling the October magic that defined his stint with the Boston Red Sox, but he took the loss in Game 1 of the World Series.

Hendricks, meanwhile, mustered a sparkling performance in the clinching Game 6 against the Dodgers on Saturday, facing the minimum number of hitters through 7.1 shutout innings.

Skipper Joe Maddon and the Cubs brain trust, however, opted to push Hendricks back to Game 3 of the World Series, likely to afford him extra rest and exploit the 1.32 ERA he posted at Wrigley this season.

With veteran John Lackey locked in for Game 4, that leaves Arrieta on the hill for Game 2. Fox Sports' Jon Morosi suggested the Cubs' rotation was set up "nicely."

It's hyperbole to say Arrieta is all that stands between Chicago and a 2-0 series deficit. Indians relievers Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, however, demonstrated again Tuesday that an early Tribe lead is nearly insurmountable.

Cleveland ace Corey Kluber threw six shutout innings and made strikeout history, so dish credit in his direction.

Miller and Allen, though, recorded the final nine outs, six via strikeout. They've now combined for 22.1 scoreless playoff frames in 2016 with 39 whiffs.

Arrieta's directive is to tamp down early offense. He needs to keep Cleveland off the board and give the Cubs a chance to draw first blood, neutralizing the threat of the Miller/Allen two-headed demon.

Arrieta posted a 3.59 ERA on the road this season compared to a 2.62 mark at home. So Maddon isn't exactly playing the splits.

Instead, it's time for the 30-year-old right-hander to conjure the guy who won the Senior Circuit's highest pitching honor a season ago and authored two of MLB's last three no-hitters.

"It's why you play the whole season," Arrieta said, per Paul Skrbina of the Chicago Tribune. "To be in this position."

Arrieta still has the stuff to be an elite MLB pitcher.
Arrieta still has the stuff to be an elite MLB pitcher.Harry How/Getty Images

Arrieta's drop-off wasn't the result of some cataclysmic event. He sported a 1.56 ERA at the end of May. Overall, however, his command fizzled, as he issued 76 walks in the regular season compared to 48 in 2015.

"It's hard to repeat what he did last year," Cubs catcher Miguel Montero said, per USA Today's Josh Peter. "He hasn't pitched as well, but the stuff is still there."

The point is, he's not broken. He's merely on the fritz. This is the time of year when unlikely heroes rise and stars wake from their slumber.

Locked and loaded as they were in Game 1, Indians hitters own a .219 postseason average. That number drops to .209 against righties.

"I would say the only problem Jake Arrieta has is excellent levels," super-agent Scott Boras said of his client Oct. 18, per Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune. "It's the old story. Most people have a penthouse. He happens to have two or three floors. That's where Jake is. Any one of the floors, we're fine with."

The Cubs would be fine with a quality outing and a chance to hand it off to their own pen, including flamethrower Aroldis Chapman.

Arrieta's counterpart in Game 2, right-hander Trevor Bauer, is no sure bet as he recovers from a freak drone injury

Arrieta has every opportunity to be the better starter. He has a shot at high-profile redemption and an automatic pass to the annals of Cubbies lore.

Destiny is calling. Now, we need an answer.

All statistics current as of Tuesday and courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. 

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