"You know what you're going to get out of that guy. But at the same time, anybody can have an off night," Cole said. "You know how these games can go either way. ... I just couldn't find anything to get working for me."
The top of the Cubs' lineup -- specifically, leadoff man Dexter Fowler and two-hole hitter Kyle Schwarber -- plagued Cole all night. Fowler hit a single to begin the game, stole second and scored on Schwarber's single to left field.
In the third inning, with Fowler on first base, Schwarber crushed a two-run homer all the way out of PNC Park, blasting a 2-1 slider over the right-field seats. Cole buried the pitch down in the zone like he wanted to, but it didn't break like he wanted.
With one out in the fifth, Fowler launched a 2-2 fastball over the wall in right-center, giving Chicago a four-run lead. It was the first time since May 27 that Cole allowed multiple home runs in a game.
The short start was also a rarity for Cole, who pitched seven innings in each of his last three starts and at least six in each of his last four. In fact, he didn't surpass five innings in only six of his 32 regular-season outings, with four of those starts coming against the Reds.
"I couldn't really get into a good rhythm. I wasn't able to make pitches when I needed to," Cole said. "The two home runs were bad. I was trying to figure things out out there, trying to find something to go to, something to work.
"It's just one of those nights."
Lined up against a gauntlet of postseason-bound teams, Cole was at his best down the stretch. He went 4-0 with a 2.36 ERA in his last five starts -- two each against the Cardinals and Cubs, and one against the Dodgers.
Barely 25 years old, Cole spent six months answering a question that faced him this spring: Was he ready to be an ace? He responded by finishing the year 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA in 208 innings.
But he couldn't maintain that pace on Wednesday night, nor could he match the string of nine zeros Arrieta left on the PNC Park scoreboard.
"Gerrit's one of the top pitchers in the league," second baseman Neil Walker said. "They took advantage of a few mistakes. ... Just one of those nights."
The next time Cole starts at PNC Park may very well be on April 4, in the Bucs' 2016 season opener against the Cards. By then, he should be able to look back proudly on what he accomplished this season.
But Wednesday night, he only felt the sting of a disappointing finish.
"It burns. It stings. ... All the negative things you can come up with, that's how it feels right now," Cole said. "But it makes it a little easier to walk away from this, knowing all the hard work we put in this year and all the wins that we had to show for it in the regular season.
"I think we built something sustainable here, and that's something to look forward to."