"He's our ace, and he's been pitching pretty much like an ace," Cubs manager Rick Renteria said of Arrieta, who struck out 10 over seven innings, giving up one unearned run on two hits.
This was Arrieta's fourth start against the Cardinals, and he held them to three earned runs over 22 1/3 innings for a 1.21 ERA. Guess who the Cubs face on Opening Day 2015? The Cardinals.
"I think that's a possibility," Arrieta said about an Opening Day assignment. "It's really something that will kind of develop and unfold as that time approaches. ... We've got a lot of good things going on here."
It starts with pitching. Arrieta did walk the first batter of the game, Matt Carpenter, on four pitches, then struck out the side.
"He gave us seven innings of work," Renteria said. "He didn't hurt himself by swinging the bat either."
Luis Valbuena doubled to lead off the Chicago fourth against John Lackey, and two outs later, Logan Watkins was intentionally walked. Arrieta then delivered, lining the ball into the gap in right-center for the first triple by a Cubs pitcher since Chris Rusin did so Aug. 21, 2012. It was Arrieta's 10th career hit in 64 at-bats.
"I just hung in there and was able to put enough on it to find the gap," Arrieta said. "[Third-base coach Gary Jones] said he threw up the stop sign. I was happy to even be running the bases. That was an exciting point in the game."
Lackey blamed himself.
"It was a fastball down," Lackey said. "Probably, if I throw a breaking ball there I don't give up any runs tonight. [Catcher Yadier Molina] actually called a breaking ball. I over-thought it a little bit because that would have been the same sequence I did to him the first time, so I thought I should throw a fastball. It didn't work out."
Arrieta had not given up a hit at that point, and Molina ended any thoughts of a no-hitter with a leadoff single in the fifth. All the baserunning may have affected the Cubs pitcher.
"I had to kind of regain a little composure and calm myself down and breathe a little bit," Arrieta said of the fifth. "I got a little lazy with a couple pitches, found some holes, couple guys on base. They were able to scratch for that one [run]."
The Cardinals had runners at first and third with one out in the fifth and tallied on a throwing error by catcher Welington Castillo.
"Anytime you face a guy with that electric stuff, you kind of feel like you're on defense up there from the get-go," Carpenter said of Arrieta. "Anytime he gets ahead of you, you feel like you're in a bad spot."
A crowd of 33,292 attended the Cubs' last home game of the season at Wrigley Field, and Renteria was already looking ahead to next year, although most likely not ready to pencil in his Opening Day starter.
"This was certainly a great experience for me in my first year," Renteria said. "More than anything, it's been awesome to see a lot of those young guys show up here in the big leagues and everybody gets to see them."
The Cubs drew 2,652,113 for the season and posted a winning record at Wrigley Field (41-40). With three games remaining in Milwaukee, they will still finish with a sub-.500 record, and Renteria knows that won't be acceptable in years to come.
"Do I expect we'll be better next year? Absolutely," Renteria said.