SAN FRANCISCO — Kyle Hendricks has pretty much the same experience every time he hangs out with Jake Arrieta away from the ballpark. Whether they’re downtown for dinner or hoofing it on Southport near their Wrigley-area homes, Hendricks — merely major league baseball’s 2016 ERA champ — is the second guy recognized, if he’s recognized at all.
“I can go anywhere and blend,” he said, “but Jake gets noticed nonstop. I love going out with him and just sinking into the background and watching him get all the attention.”
Isn’t that the very nature of Arrieta’s presence on these Cubs?
Both Hendricks and Jon Lester had better regular seasons. A number of position players brought more value to a team that won 103 games and will have a chance here in Monday’s game 3 of the NLDS — with Arrieta on the bump — to drop-kick the ever-dangerous Giants out of the playoffs.
Yet Arrieta remains a star like none other, especially among the Cubs’ pitchers. The Bunyanesque beard, the arrow-straight posture, the steely glare and superhero’s physique — add all that to the unhittable version of Arrieta that prowled the mound for much of last season and the first couple of months of this one, and you have something even greater-seeming than the sum of its parts.
Emphasis on “seeming.”
How good is Arrieta, really? Manager Joe Maddon insists Arrieta is the same dominant talent he was in 2015, even if the stats don’t bear that out. The Giants refer to him as one of the best in the business, even though their own Game 3 starter, Madison Bumgarner, has the sort of postseason résumé and reputation other pitchers, Arrieta included, must have a difficult time fathoming.
Bumgarner is 8-3 with a 1.94 ERA in his playoff career, which includes three World Series titles with the Giants. Since his last, in the 2014 NLDS, he has been nearly untouchable, allowing four runs in 45 2/3 innings.
Arrieta, on the other hand, followed his shutout gem in the 2015 wild-card game in Pittsburgh with shaky outings against the Cardinals and Mets. He didn’t make it out of the sixth inning of either game and got tagged for four earned runs in each.
That less-than-brilliant track record might not be anything to talk about if Arrieta hadn’t slogged through a winless July and struggled through all of September. Arrieta might look like a perfectly maintained machine, but he enters his first playoff start of 2016 pitching like anything but one.
“I don’t think Jake is cowered by any situation,” Maddon said. “We have a lot of confidence in him.”
A nice thing about Arrieta: He has helped the Cubs in ways other than his own pitching. When Hendricks arrived in Chicago in 2014, Arrieta was the one who took him under his wing. When Arrieta blew up into a rock star and Hendricks was even more invisible than he is now, it didn’t stop Arrieta from sharing hours of one-on-one support.
Even this season, as their paths crossed in opposite directions — Hendricks simply pitching much better — Arrieta doubled down on his investment in his teammate.
“I could tell how genuinely happy he was, how much he has rooted for me, how much he cares,” Hendricks said. “That’s a testament to the guy he is.”
But it’s Arrieta who has the center-stage assignment of pitching in a potential closeout game on Bumgarner’s home turf. It’s the sort of scenario a ballplayer dreams about.
“You think about it a lot,” Arrieta said. “As a kid, you [imagine] yourself in those positions.”
As a superstar, you come through in them. How good is Arrieta, really? Monday’s a good time to find out.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.