CHICAGO — David Ross has a home plate from Great American Ball Park framed and on display in his house. It is from the game he was behind the plate helping author one of Jake Arrieta‘s no-hitters with the Cubs.
On Tuesday, both Ross and president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer were reminiscing about Arrieta, who has announced his retirement. Arrieta was one of baseball’s best breakout stories, one of Chicago’s unexpected trade victories and a force on the mound during the Cubs’ run to the 2016 World Series.
“Never in our wildest dreams,” Hoyer said, “did we imagine that he was going to hit the heights that he did. In order to have the kind of run we had, you need those kind of wins. He’s certainly the biggest one of those that we had.”
Hoyer and his former front-office boss, Theo Epstein, built the Cubs’ last core via the Draft (Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber were among the first-rounders), key free-agent signings (Jon Lester, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist top that list) and impact trades (Anthony Rizzo).
The deal the Cubs swung with the Orioles on July 2, 2013, was not one Chicago necessarily expected to be a game-changing swap. The North Siders sent Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger to Baltimore for reliever Pedro Strop, Arrieta and international bonus cash. At the time, Arrieta had posted a 5.46 ERA in parts of four seasons with the O’s.
“When we acquired him,” Hoyer said, “we thought we were getting a power arm from Baltimore that certainly hadn’t met his potential there. And we hoped a change of scenery would do him a lot of good.”
Did it ever — both for Arrieta and the Cubs.
Arrieta turned into one of baseball’s front-line aces, winning the National League Cy Young Award in 2015 and helping transform the “lovable losers” into World Series champions. He won two games in the ’16 Fall Classic against Cleveland, and was ready to head to the mound as that legendary Game 7 went to extras.
“I couldn’t have been more calm about the thought of him coming in the game,” Hoyer said. “He wanted the ball on the biggest stages, and I think there’s probably no bigger testament to a competitor than that. No days rest. He wanted the ball. He wanted to be in Game 7. That’s what he’s all about.”
Another game came to mind for Ross.
“I’m not a historian here,” said the Cubs’ manager. “But probably one of the biggest outings ever for this organization had to be the Pittsburgh Wild Card Game, right? If I’m going back to the evolution of that team, him just basically going in there and putting us on his back.”
On Oct. 7, 2015, Arrieta took the hill at PNC Park in front of an intimidating crowd. The right-hander carved up Pittsburgh’s lineup for 11 strikeouts, issued zero walks, threw a five-hit shutout and was part of some benches-clearing drama after he was hit by a pitch.
That win announced to the baseball world that the young upstart Cubs had arrived and were not going away.
“You’re talking about an ace,” Ross said.
During that ’15 campaign, Arrieta went 16-1 with a 0.86 ERA in his final 20 turns for the Cubs. He had 122 strikeouts compared to 23 walks in 116 1/3 innings in the second half, going 13-1 in that span. Overall, he finished 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA in 33 starts, winning the NL Cy Young.
“Every once in a while, we’ll say, ‘So and so is pitching like 2015 Arrieta,'” Hoyer said. “And then all of a sudden, [you look at] his actual numbers during that period, you realize no one actually ever pitches like that.
“We knew it at the time, that we’ll never see something like that again probably in our career.”
In his Cubs career, Arrieta finished 73-42 with a 3.14 ERA in 148 starts. That includes a tough reunion in ’21, when he went 5-11 with a 6.88 ERA before being released in August. The righty also pitched for the Phillies and Padres in his career, going 115-93 with a 3.98 ERA overall in 12 seasons.
“The last chapter here, obviously, didn’t go as anyone hoped,” Hoyer said. “But to me, it doesn’t tarnish anything about what he did. He’s as responsible for that run that we had as any single player. I hope he enjoys retirement.”