It was just over a year ago, on March 12, 2018, that free agent starting pitcher Jake Arrieta finally found a team for his services. Somewhat surprisingly, that team was the Philadelphia Phillies.
His choice was a bit of a surprise in that the Phillies were still trying to find a path back to long-term contending status. The team had not been a winner since 2011. At age 32, Arrieta was coming off a three-year stretch in which he had won both a Cy Young Award and World Series with the Chicago Cubs.
But with no other suitors willing to meet his price on a multi-year deal, Arrieta accepted the Phillies offer of a guaranteed $75 million over three seasons with two additional club option years.
The Phillies hoped that the eight-year veteran could provide leadership to an otherwise young rotation as well as deliver consistently strong outings to help push the team closer to contention.
The leadership has come. The consistent strong outings came as well, but only for the first two months of the 2018 season. On May 29 of last season, Arrieta went seven shutout innings at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles as the Phillies downed the hosts by a 6-1 score.
He allowed just six hits, walked two and struck out five in raising his record to 5-2 on the year to that point. Over those first two months the right-hander allowed just a .230 batting average against. He yielded 48 hits over 58.1 innings with a 40/19 K:BB ratio and had given up just two home runs over his first 10 starts in a Phillies uniform.
But trouble suddenly developed in June. He suffered losses in four of his five outings and produced a frightening 6.66 ERA while surrendering seven long balls. Arrieta bounced back in July, when he pitched to a 2.80 ERA and .238 BAA across six starts. He went 4-0 in that stretch and allowed just two balls to leave the yard.
His August began with a gem in the Arizona desert. Arrieta went eight shutout innings against the host Diamondbacks, allowing just three hits and two walks. Unfortunately, young closer Seranthony Dominguez came on and blew a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the 9th of a game that the Phillies would ultimately lose in 14 innings.
Arrieta was rocked in San Diego six days later but recovered with a strong outing at home against the Mets on August 18. However, the offense let him down in that one for a 3-1 defeat. That was the first of eight losses in ten games that would drop the Phillies from a neck-and-neck battle with the Atlanta Braves at the top of the NL East standings to 4.5 games out.
By the end of the season it would grow to a 10-game deficit, and the pitching of Arrieta was partially to blame. Over his final seven starts beginning on August 24 he went just 1-3 with a 6.82 ERA, allowing 40 hits including nine homers over 34.1 innings.
We would later learn that Arrieta had suffered an injury to his left knee, possibly in June of last year or earlier when his results first began to deteriorate. He pitched through discomfort the rest of the way and was still trying to work through it when, during a workout this off-season, something popped. It turns out that he had a torn meniscus.
“I was able to pitch pretty effectively and it didn’t bother me too much in between starts,” Arrieta said per Todd Zolecki of MLB.com after undergoing surgery in January of this year. “Then in the offseason training, just doing some routine stuff, moving around a little bit, I came up out of the seated position and there were a couple pops. It didn’t feel right.”
“Jake’s a tough individual, so he’s not the kind of guy who’s going to let on that something’s bugging him, because there’s a lot of pride there,” manager Gabe Kapler said per Zolecki. “My understanding was that it was an injury that he sustained during one of his workouts. … Obviously, Jake knows his body very well and he was feeling it last season.”
Now as they prepare to open the most anticipated season for the team and its fans in eight years, Arrieta has a key role to play in the rotation once again. With the knee fixed it is hoped that he can put together a complete season closer to his Cubs years.
Arrieta wrapped up his and the Phillies spring training preparations with a strong Grapefruit League outing on Monday afternoon. Over six innings against the Tampa Bay Rays in Clearwater he struck out eight and walked no one while allowing two earned runs on six hits.
“Of course I think we’re a playoff team,” Arrieta said following that outing per Tom Housenick for The Intelligencer. “Look at our team last year. We were borderline. We had our chances, but some youth, some inexperience, maybe some hangover from some tough series carried over to the next (series) instead of the cliché of turning the page quick. … This group is much better suited to take on that task and deal with adversity, process it and move forward in a positive way…”
With the additions of Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura and Andrew McCutchen, the Phillies lineup is anything but “borderline” now. If what we saw on Monday is any indication of what we’re going to get most of this coming season from Arrieta on the mound, that will help to ensure that there is no collapse over the final month this time around.
He takes the mound for the first time next Sunday night in front of a packed house against the defending NL East champion Atlanta Braves in a nationally televised game. It will be the first of hopefully some 35-40 starts for Arrieta in the coming season…and postseason.
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