It's fitting that as the 2015 Orioles season sinks into beautiful oblivion, one of the members of Dave Trembley's cavalry has thrown a no-hitter. Pitching for the Cubs on the ESPN stage on Sunday night, Jake Arrieta tossed a no-hitter against the Dodgers in Los Angeles - the second time in the span of nine games that $300 million team has been no-hit.
For Orioles fans who are aghast watching the flaming wreckage of the year, it's an extra twist of the knife to see someone who was once supposed to be part of the success plan here turn in such brilliance for another team. This when the Orioles struggling starting rotation - third-worst in the American League by ERA - is a prime reason why the team is where they are in the standings right now. You know what they could really use? A pitcher of the caliber that Arrieta has become since being traded away sure wouldn't have hurt.
No one in Birdland needs the reminder that Arrieta, along with Pedro Strop, was traded to the Cubs for Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger. National baseball types on Twitter, whether out of a desire to fill in facts for a wider audience, troll Orioles fans, or both, have not hesitated to make amazed comments about this trade.
Feldman, then a free agent-to-be, was not enough to save the 2013 Orioles season, and in fact in turning in a 4.27 ERA post-trade, did more harm than good.
In that sense the trade was a failure, but those out there acting like the Orioles muffed that trade because it was some inevitable thing that Arrieta would ever be this good in Baltimore are not fully utilizing the power of their memory. There was no point in his Orioles career where Arrieta was ever on a trajectory for this kind of success. In fact, his ERA was worse every year than the year before.
The last time Arrieta ever pitched in Baltimore
The date was April 21, 2013, a cold Sunday afternoon game against the Dodgers. It stands out in my memory because I was there and I was cold, not because I knew at the time it would be significant. I spent this game in the press box, as I still get to do occasionally, so I had a nice view as Arrieta turned in what was ultimately a start emblematic of his entire Orioles tenure.
The O's hitters staked Arrieta to a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning. There was no need to pitch as if any one mistake would spell disaster. Yet Arrieta managed to walk three batters in the third inning, an inning where he threw 37 pitches. He should have, at least, thrown strikes and put on cruise control - but the Arrieta who pitched parts of four seasons with the O's was not capable of throwing strikes.
Coming out for the fifth inning, now leading 4-1, Arrieta again lost his command. He walked the #8 batter, hit the #9 batter with a pitch, and then, for old times' sake, walked the leadoff hitter Carl Crawford as the lineup turned over. When Arrieta gave up a two-run single to Matt Ellis, he was yanked from the game, deservedly so. When you melt down in the fifth inning because of an inability to throw strikes, that's what's going to happen to you.
Both runners he left behind scored off T.J. McFarland, so his line for the day was a Tommy Hunter special (five runs, all earned). He gave up the five runs while only allowing two hits in four innings - but he walked five batters. That sucks. He sucked that day. He had many bad days in an Orioles uniform, which is why, at the time he was traded, his career big league ERA was 5.43.
As this particular game moved along, a couple of longtime Baltimore sports personalities who are seen less at Oriole Park once Ravens training camp opened up were joking with one another in my hearing about Arrieta's bad outing.
"You think Arrieta's on his way to Norfolk already?" asked one. It was about the sixth inning at this time.
"He's probably on a helicopter flying over the Potomac right now," replied the second.
"They might shove him out mid-flight," the first added. Both of them laughed and so did I.
The classic change of scenery guy
A lot of the stuff that was written about Arrieta's time in Baltimore made it sound like the problem with Arrieta had as much to do with him needing to stop thinking so much as anything else. Even as he has found success in Chicago, this sort of reputation continues, although now it gets referred to in a positive way, as in last night's ESPN broadcast, when analyst Jessica Mendoza called him "cerebral." You want to be cerebral. You don't want to "think too much."
I heard this up close on another occasion for some press box eavesdropping during one of Arrieta's 2012 starts.
Arrieta had just been demoted to the bullpen coming off his previous outing in which he was blasted for nine runs on 11 hits in only four innings of work. That's where he was going to stay for a while - at least, that was the plan until Brian Matusz bunted a ball off of his face when pitchers were going through bunting practice in advance of a two-city National League swing. Matusz was not going to be able to start on his regular turn. He needed a couple of days. It was Arrieta who was pressed into service.
Before the game started, I remember sitting there listening to several of the regular beat writers in discussion among themselves about a belief that Arrieta would perform better without having had days to sit around thinking about his next start. He would just be able to go out and pitch.
I sat there thinking, "This is the biggest load of nonsense I have ever heard in my entire life." Yet I should have remembered my Yogi Berra. Ninety percent of the game is half mental.
Seven innings later, Arrieta had recorded nine strikeouts, scattered seven hits and one walk over seven innings and only gave up one run in that time. He looked masterful, the kind of pitcher who could make you understand why Trembley uttered that the cavalry was coming. Maybe he's finally arrived, I tried to tell myself. I wanted to believe.
No, he wasn't finally here. After another four starts, the last two of which were very poor, he was bounced from the rotation into the bullpen for good. Unlike his teammates Tommy Hunter and Matusz, who unexpectedly thrived once coming in relief in September, Arrieta had no success in that stint either, giving up 10 runs in 13.1 innings of bullpen work. He was just the same old Jake.
Don't worry, be happy (for Jake, anyway)
For whatever reason, and I certainly hope that the Orioles have scoured and continue to scour their collective brainpower to figure out what the reason is, the simple fact is that Arrieta wouldn't have ever had any success here. So it's not worth it to worry about the trade. Of course if the Orioles knew Arrieta would be good for them they wouldn't have made the trade. He never gave them any reason to believe it was going to happen. He was 27 when they traded him. He wasn't a young gun any more.
Heck, when we all sat around watching his 2010 and 2011 outings, it was all about telling ourselves, "As soon as his command improves and he walks fewer batters and strikes out more batters, he's going to be great!" In the 2012 season, he cut his walk rate by nearly 40% and increased his strikeout rate nearly 25% and he sucked more than ever.
You remember the meltdowns. I remember the meltdowns. In Baltimore he just couldn't get away from them. That was what it was going to be. In my immediate reaction to the trade two years ago, I wrote, "He was given many chances to fail and he availed himself of all of them." That part is still true. The Cubs took something worth nothing and polished it into a Cy Young contender. Good for them, and good for Arrieta, too. I always hoped he'd make it,
Frustration with the Orioles for failing to do so, and frustration as they continue to flounder with developing their top pitching talent, are both understandable. Worrying about the trade, though? Hakuna matata, my friend. Just be happy for Arrieta instead. Maybe even root for him and the other former Orioles on that team in the postseason, since it's not like there will be any current Orioles to concern us in mid-to-late October.