Arrieta carries great expectations into Opening Day

Arrieta carries great expectations into Opening Day

LAS VEGAS -- The 2015 season was remarkable for Jake Arrieta. He set a career high with 22 wins, threw his first no-hitter, and posted a 1.77 ERA, lowest for a Cubs qualifying starting pitcher in 96 years. The season ended with champagne as he was crowned the National League Cy Young Award winner.

Arrieta became the fifth pitcher in Major League history to have at least 22 wins with no more than six losses and an ERA under 2.00 since ERA became an official stat, joining Sandy Koufax, Denny McLain, Ron Guidry and Dwight Gooden. Arrieta's 0.41 ERA over 12 starts from Aug. 4 to the end of the season was the lowest by any pitcher from Aug. 1 to the end of the regular season since ERA became an official stat.

So what does Arrieta do for an encore?

"It was a record in all of baseball ever, so to say I'm going to have those numbers again is probably not realistic, but they're going to be good, I know that," Arrieta said of picking up from his stunning second half.

The right-hander will get the regular-season started Monday night when the Cubs open against the Angels at 8:05 p.m. CT., the first time in franchise history they will begin against an American League team. The Cubs are hoping to close the season with a win over an AL team as well.

This will be Arrieta's second Opening Day start -- he also did so for the Orioles on April 6, 2012.

But after throwing a career-high 229 innings, the Cubs were careful this spring to ease Arrieta, 30, back into work mode. A hint of a blister on his right thumb forced him out of one spring start, although it wasn't a big deal. The problem was more the Super Glue that Arrieta applied than the blister itself.

Arrieta on final spring start

Arrieta showed that the blister was a non-issue on Tuesday when he threw 102 pitches against the Athletics in his final Cactus League game.

Can Arrieta win 20-plus and post a sub 2.00 ERA again?

"It's something that's hard to repeat," catcher Miguel Montero said. "That could be the best year of his career. Even if he comes up and wins 18 games and has an ERA of 2.20 or 2.30 or 2.50, that's a really good year, that's Cy Young numbers right there, and people may be a little disappointed because of that? I don't think you can be disappointed in that."

A fitness freak who is devoted to his workout routine and kale-blended smoothies, Arrieta reported to camp in better shape this year than last. If anyone has the potential to repeat such a fine season, it could be him. The Cubs have never had back-to-back Cy Young Award winners.

"He's got the potential to do it, but that being said, I don't want to put more pressure on him than what he already has," Montero said. "I know he probably thinks he has to do the same, and he doesn't need to do the same."

Arrieta does have at least one surprise up his sleeve this year: He wants to break out an eephus pitch.

Arrieta has tried to downplay the Opening Day assignment.

"It means something special to everybody, not only myself, but my team behind me," he said. "Everybody's been waiting for this moment. It's finally here. To be the guy on the mound for the first one is something special. After that game is over, there's 161 games on the schedule to fight through as a team."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.