The Chicago Cubs finally got a sizable monkey off their backs when they beat the New York Mets on Monday night, snapping an eight-game losing streak against the team, but things won’t get any easier as they face off against Noah Syndergaard on Tuesday.
Syndergaard, who has a 9-4 record with a 2.56 ERA so far this season for the Mets, dominated the Cubs during the 2015 National League Championship Series, striking out nine batters and giving up just one earned run in a 4-1 victory that helped set the tone for the Mets’ eventual sweep.
He continued his dominance in a regular season start against the Cubs in early July, striking out eight batters and allowing one run in seven innings as the Mets beat the Cubs 14-3 at Citi Field as part of a four-game regular season sweep.
Getting revenge on Syndergaard will be important for the Cubs, but a far more important narrative is worthy of the attention of fans in Tuesday’s game. Jake Arrieta will make his first start of the second half of the season for the Cubs, who have lost five of his last eight starts as the starter has struggled to find the form that he was able to display for the better part of a year.
Within that eight game sample size, Arrieta has had some good outings, including a two-hit outing against the Dodgers in late May and an 11-strikeout performance against the Pirates in mid-June, but his struggles with fastball command and ballooning pitch counts have conspired to bring him back to earth in a big way.
He has taken losses in four of his last seven starts, and even when he’s gotten wins, he hasn’t always been at his best. In a win against the Reds in late June, Arrieta walked five batters and gave up five earned runs in five innings, but he was able to get a victory thanks to a three-home run game by Kris Bryant that propelled the Cubs to an 11-8 victory.
There have also been fits and starts when it appears that Arrieta has gotten his command issues figured out, but then he loses his command just as quickly. His last start against the Pirates was a perfect example, as he settled down after a three run second inning. After several innings where he struck out batters and looked to be keeping the Pirates off balance, they jumped all over him in the seventh inning and eventually forced him out of the game as he took the loss in the contest.
Tuesday night will be Arrieta’s first opportunity to show that he is trending in the right direction, and it’s a direction that the Cubs will certainly need him to travel in. It was no coincidence that Arrieta’s surge coincided with the Cubs’ push toward the postseason in 2015, and although the team is better equipped to maintain their divisional lead this time around, they’ll still need him to find his ace form again if they are going to make a deep October run.
That, perhaps more than anything, is what the Cubs need to see from Arrieta. It doesn’t have to be Bob Gibson-type numbers, but rather the ability to be the team’s stopper and a virtually guaranteed winner every fifth day. When the playoffs roll around, having that kind of ace is critical, and although Jon Lester has pitched like that for the vast majority of this season, Arrieta is the straw that stirs the drink for this pitching staff.
If he can find his command and have a dominant second half, then the Cubs will enter the postseason as the undisputed favorites to win the World Series. If he continues to be somewhat more pedestrian, then there will be plenty of questions to answer and plenty of pressure heaped upon the other starters in the rotation.