NEW YORK – Jake Arrieta's first pitch Sunday night, a fastball, missed everything. Everything but the backstop, actually, after it had cleared a catcher's mitt by plenty and an umpire's right leg by an inch or two. He'd worked toward that pitch for six days and nights. He'd measured his steps, and abided his routine, and stood on the mound at a raucous Citi Field. He'd felt the series on his shoulders and the ball in his hand and then thrown that ball clear to the backstop.
He'd throw 93 more pitches, a couple of which were far more damaging, both to the Chicago Cubs and to the chosen baseball. As the veteran catcher David Ross would say several times late Sunday, "This is baseball," which is his way of affirming there's rarely a true or standard or inevitable outcome. Sometimes you win 22 games and are carried from the field and other times you throw the fastball you've been thinking about for six days past everything, and a dozen pitches later are probably looking back on the very events that will beat you, with an entire game still out there.
"Well, we've got work to do," Arrieta said. "The good thing is we get to go home and play three games at Wrigley Field. The series is not over."
Potentially three in Chicago.
Arrieta allowed three runs in the first inning Sunday night in Game 2 of the National League championship series, all of them across the first 13 pitches he'd throw. Three hours later, the New York Mets were 4-1 winners, led the series 2-0, and had left open the possibility the next time they're in Queens will be for a World Series game.
Of the starting pitchers, Arrieta and Noah Syndergaard, it was the 23-year-old Mets rookie who was to be the unpredictable one. He'd pitched in relief only three days before in Los Angeles. He'd not known for sure he was Game 2's starter until Saturday. And yet it was Arrieta who could not summon his usual velocity, who'd come out in the cold mis-locating pitches, who'd not gather his typical precision until it was too late, and then who'd have to answer for the 248 2/3 innings – going on 100 more than in any previous season – on his body and psyche.
"Physically, I felt fine," he said. "I knew the high-end velocity wasn't necessarily there tonight. I threw quite a few changeups to offset that.
"I knew I didn't have the [usual] life. The really good life. Physically, I do feel great. There's no soreness at all."
He pitched five innings and allowed four runs.
Arrieta stood in the cold bare-armed like an offensive lineman. Queens in October isn't Green Bay in December, but cold is cold, and Arrieta, out of Plano, Texas, was about the only person at Citi Field without long sleeves beyond the guy who came over on the 7 train dressed up like Thor.
He is, without a doubt, a big, tough guy. Winter, against the effects of Jake Arrieta, often wears sleeves.
Anyway, the bearded, not-cold Arrieta, of the 0.75 second-half ERA, of the single loss since the middle of June, took on the Mets and a hyperventilating crowd. His shoulders were back and sturdy. His gaze was steady. His brim was very flat. His arms slightly pinkish.
And by that 13th pitch, a curveball, the Mets had scored three runs. Tightening that further, Curtis Granderson, the Mets' leadoff hitter, singled on Arrieta's fifth pitch. So in the course of nine pitches, Arrieta had allowed more runs – three – than he had in 24 of his 33 starts, and more earned runs than he had in either August or September (two each), from Granderson's liner to David Wright's double to Daniel Murphy's home run to a Citi Field curtain call before Arrieta had recorded an out.
In May, it's one rough inning. In October, that's a rough inning on his way to nearly 250 innings. Big ol' Jake might actually be wearing down.
"I mean, I can't deny that it might be," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "I don't know that. If you ask him, he'll tell you no. In the game there, if that gun was correct on the field, he might have been down a mile-an-hour or two. That's what I saw. Overall, and when that happens … the commitment to the breaking ball is not as definite from the hitter's perspective, because they're able to see everything better.
"So, I don't know if that's true or not, but from the side [the] delivery was good. He was not laboring to throw the ball. It's just it wasn't as crisp as it had been, that's all."
Arrieta would only say there'd been "a disconnect there for me timing-wise. I think that's where the mistakes came from."
He'd been the world-beating Arrieta in the wild-card game, where he shut out the Pittsburgh Pirates. Five days later he gave up four runs in 5 2/3 innings to the St. Louis Cardinals, and six days after that four to the Mets in five innings.
This is what October runs are made of. What they sound like. There'll be aces who live for games like these and who don't scare, like Arrieta. There'll also be nine-pitch wobbles, and the Mets are living on those. You roll over those pitches or pop them up or foul them off and wake up the next day to regret it, or you knock one off a wall and another over the wall and win a ballgame.
In 10 days, the Mets beat Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Jon Lester and Arrieta. In those same 10 days, Murphy homered off each of them, and Kershaw twice. They did manage to avoid Gibson and Koufax.
"I'll argue we have the Syndergaards, the Harveys, the Matzes and the deGroms," David Wright said. "So I like our chances."
As for the series, it would appear to be leaning Mets. The Cubs have spent their two studs. They come next with Kyle Hendricks and, presumably, Jason Hammel, both capable pitchers, neither having shown himself to be Lester or Arrieta. The Mets in Game 3 will start Jacob deGrom, who has spent the past several months challenging Matt Harvey for the job of staff ace.
If Arrieta were to pitch again in the series, it likely would be Game 6, back at Citi Field, with a chance to start all over. That would give him another six days to prepare, to put these five innings behind him, to stand out on the mound and pour everything into his next pitch, whatever that may be.
"I mean," he said, "it wasn't ideal. At the same time, occasionally these things will happen."
He shrugged. This is baseball. So utterly baseball.