LOS ANGELES — Maybe Jake Arrieta didn’t need to hear it. Then again, maybe he did.
It was the start of spring training in Mesa, Ariz., and Arrieta was preparing to attempt the nearly impossible: a repeat performance of his electrifying 2015 season, in which he won the Cy Young and was — start after start as the summer progressed — essentially unhittable. It was one of the greatest hot streaks by any Cubs player in history.
Yet along with that excellence came great responsibility. Arrieta worked his body hard to carry the Cubs into the 2015 postseason. His mind got a real workout, too. He admits now that, by the time the Cubs ran up against the Mets in the National League Championship Series, he was drained mentally.
Maddon had a two-part message for Arrieta in Mesa. One, that the hook would come earlier in 2016 — an effort to keep him fresh for the later stages of the season. And two, that the team neither expected nor needed Arrieta to be invincible.
Not until October, that is.
Now? The 32 fewer innings Arrieta threw during the regular season means his gas tank is full. And the big-game experience the 30-year-old has gained should have him sharp for Tuesday’s Game 3 of the NLCS against the Dodgers.
“I think I’m in a much better place,” he said a day before his fifth playoff start with the Cubs.
No one will stand in Arrieta’s way now if he wants to reach for his superhero’s cape.
Jon Lester earned the right to start Game 1 of each playoff round thus far. Kyle Hendricks was such a steady tactician all season — and so confounding to opposing hitters at Wrigley Field — that it made perfect sense for Maddon to throw Hendricks in Game 2 and save Arrieta for the road.
But the Cubs and Dodgers are tied 1-1, making this no different than a best-of-five series from here forward. In that context, the stage is set for Arrieta to come through as the ace he wants to be. He can turn the series in the Cubs’ favor Tuesday and, if it goes that far, get the ball in Game 7 with the World Series on the line.
Talk about High Stakes Jake.
“To be (1-1), we like our chances moving forward,” he said. “I like our chances.”
Arrieta walked through the clubhouse prior to Monday’s team workout with fire in his eyes and pep in his step. He told teammates he wished Game 3 were a day earlier. He was ready to go.
“He’s going to be a bulldog and he’s going to go right at the batters,” Addison Russell said. “We have all the confidence in the world in him.”
Arrieta didn’t have his best stuff over the course of his last several starts of the regular season, but he was more than ace-like in Game 3 of the NLDS in San Francisco. The Cubs ended up losing that night, yet Arrieta outpitched Giants star Madison Bumgarner and mashed a three-run homer that felt more like a declaration:
Don’t you worry, High Stakes Jake is up for this.
It doesn’t hurt that Arrieta’s last start at Dodger Stadium, in August of 2015, was a no-hitter, or that he threw seven innings of shutout ball against the Dodgers at Wrigley Field in May. They have faced Arrieta at his best.
“He’s a very good pitcher,” L.A. manager Dave Roberts said.
The version of Arrieta the Cubs are counting on seeing the rest of the way is better than good. It’s his series now.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.