If your At Bat is set to default to the scoreboard, as mine does, there is a handy feature in which a special event gets flagged so you know which game to start at. That was the case when checking the scores on Friday morning and the ‘No hitter’ sign was there in red next to the game between the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds.
It wasn’t as surprising as most no-hitters because the match-up suggested it was more than a possibility. Jake Arrieta no-hit the Dodgers on the way to a Cy Young Award last season and the rebuilding Reds are not in great shape, so put the two together and the odds of Cincinnati coming out on top weren’t great.
No-hitters don’t happen every day though and as the innings roll on the pressure builds.
In some ways they’re a bit like a 147 maximum break in snooker, appropriately enough with the World Championships currently ongoing in Sheffield. As the feat comes into view, pots that otherwise would be approached with ease suddenly become more difficult because of what’s at stake.
The difference with a no-hitter is that it’s not just the pitcher that’s under pressure as the outs start to mount, but all of the fielders behind him too. It’s an individual achievement but one made possible due to the work of a team.
Arrieta’s performance against the Reds was an escalation of excellence following his first three starts. He held the Angels score-less over seven innings in his season-opener on 4 April, went seven innings again in his second start against the D-Backs where he did allow three runs but got the win all the same, and then pitched eight score-less innings against Colorado.
The signs are ominous for the rest of the National League. It couldn’t be denied that the Chicago Cubs had an excellent squad of players heading into the season and to argue against them meant somehow trying to construct plausible scenarios in which things could go wrong. The season-ending injury suffered by Kyle Schwarber early in April was one example of how the best-laid plans could come undone, but the depth that the Cubs have meant that their opponents needed several players either not to take a step-forward (such as Kris Bryant and Addison Russell) and/or others to take a step back.
Arrieta was the highest profile name among the latter group. It was not that you could reasonably hope for him to suddenly become an average pitcher, just that he might regress from being ridiculously good to merely good.
Four starts into his 2016 season and Arrieta looks determined to match, if not somehow better, what he did in 2015.
His complete dominance of the Reds came after the Cubs took two from three in St Louis in what was arguably the first strong test they’ve had so far this season. It must have been galling for the Cardinals to have former teammate John Lackey come back and beat them 5-0 not only with the ball but with the bat as well and even more so when they lost the second game of the series 2-1 with both of Chicago’s runs being batted in by pitcher Jason Hammel.
The Cubs have won two of three against the Reds heading into the final game of the series on Sunday and they will then start a home-stand including 3 games against the Brewers and 3 against the Braves. If the Cubs win today and then go 4-2 in their six-game stay at Wrigley – a quite reasonable projection – they’ll be on an 18-7 record at the end of play on 1 May.
The month of May will bring sterner tests, not least six games against Pittsburgh and series against the Nationals, Giants, Cardinals and Dodgers, but the Cubs are doing exactly what the pre-season projections suggested they might.
Although no team wins a division in April or May, opponents may already be raising the spectre of the Billy Goat Curse as the only thing that could prevent Arrieta and Chicago from making a return to the play-offs this season.