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Cubs' Jake Arrieta works his same magic against the Pirates

CHICAGO -- Jake Arrieta had just walked three straight to load the bases with one out in the sixth inning of a tight game, and his pitch count was about to reach triple digits. For most managers, with most pitchers, that would have been it. A reliever would have been summoned from the bullpen and given the responsibility of trying to get out of the jam.

Arrieta, though, is not most pitchers, so Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon said he never gave any thought to making a change.

“I knew one thing: Without denigrating our bullpen, I couldn’t find a better pitcher in the bullpen for us at that moment, so you’ve got to let it ride a little bit,” Maddon said. “We did, and he righted himself.”

Arrieta struck out the next two batters -- after falling behind each -- to complete six scoreless innings, leading to his National League-leading 11th win in the Cubs’ 6-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Friday at Wrigley Field.

“That was shades of Sudden Sam McDowell there, wasn’t it?” Maddon said, referring to the standout pitcher in the 1960s. “Walking the bases loaded and really having a hard time finding the plate, but then coming back and making great pitches when he had to. It was a throwback moment.

“That speaks to the heart of the athlete. Some guys would just give in at that moment in a very close game and good hitters coming up. But he did not cave.”

If you didn’t know any better, you might think Arrieta (11-1) loaded the bases on purpose to give himself a challenge. That’s how good he has been for the past calendar year. Besides tying Chris Sale of the crosstown White Sox for the major league lead in wins, Arrieta dropped his earned run average to 1.74. He has won two straight after losing his first game of the season.

“Nothing like a little self-inflicted drama to get the fans going,” he said.

“I really just lost feel there, but those are things that can happen. I wished I had done a better job before walking three, to make some really good pitches to get out of it. It was just a temporary lapse.”

Actually, it was his second great escape. In the third inning, Jordy Mercer and Chris Stewart led off with back-to-back singles to put runners on first and third. But Arrieta, who had 11 strikeouts, struck out the next three batters -- Francisco Liriano, John Jaso and Gregory Polanco -- to end the threat and preserve the Cubs’ 2-0 lead.

After getting the first out of the sixth, Arrieta walked Jaso, Polanco and Andrew McCutchen to load the bases. The right-hander then added to the drama by falling behind the next batter, David Freese, 3-0.

Arrieta was later asked what was going through his mind before the 3-0 pitch to Freese.

“Execute a fastball somewhere in the zone down,” he said. “That’s it.”

After dispatching Freese, Arrieta struck out Matt Joyce -- after falling behind 3-1, of course -- to end the inning and, again, preserve the Cubs’ 2-0 lead. The Cubs, perhaps seizing the momentum in the top half of the inning, broke the game open with three runs in the bottom half.

“Our starting pitcher showed the heart of a Cy Young Award winner,” Maddon said.

Against the Pirates, Arrieta has performed like a Hall of Famer. In 12 career starts against the NL Central rivals, he is now 9-1 with a 1.46 ERA. He has already beaten Pittsburgh three times this season.

He said his game plan doesn’t vary much despite the frequency with which he has faced the Pirates.

“Execution is the most important aspect of facing a team multiple times, especially a short time span or a division rival that you see a lot,” he said. “The more times a guy sees you, the more exposed you’ll be on mistakes. I don’t care if a guy is 0-fer against me in 30 at-bats. The more he sees me, the more comfort that’s probably gonna be there.

“When you face a team multiple times like that, you have to try and minimize the mistakes, because at some point they will take advantage of it.”

The Pirates will have to test Arrieta’s theory another day, because when it mattered most, there were no mistakes for the hitters to take advantage of.

Contreras' debut: Rookie catcher Willson Contreras, who was called up earlier in the day, made his major league debut when he entered on defense in the ninth inning. The 24-year-old received a standing ovation. “That was incredible,” Contreras said of the reception.