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Arrieta vs. Syndergaard

Tonight's pitching match-up should be a clash of the titans; instead, it's a battle between two struggling pitchers looking to get back on track.

This should be a heavyweight fight between two hard-throwing right-handers. The two aces should be trading jabs all night, Arrieta’s 96 MPH heat against Syndergaard’s 100 MPH haymaker — followed up with their knock-out pitches, a pair of devastating right hooks in the form of sweeping sliders to send hitters back to the bench. Two of baseball’s best pitchers, from two of the America’s best cities, going toe-to-toe in front of a national audience on ESPN. This should be a battle. 

Notice that I said it should. 

When the bell rings tonight at 6:05, rather than this being the bout we thought it might be, it’ll be a matchup between two righties that have been on the ropes as of late. Syndergaard has bone spurs in his pitching elbow to blame, but no one can figure out what’s wrong with Arrieta. 

He’s been quick to tell the media that he’s fine, but his stats suggest otherwise. In his last three starts, he’s pitched 16.1 innings and allowed 15 earned runs. He can’t keep his pitch counts down, resulting in early exits for the Cubs’ ace — he hasn’t gone more than six innings in over a month. 

While his velocity is still there, he’s not delicately painting the corners the way he used to. His breaking pitches look like 16-inch softballs to hitters, which has led to him allowing four homers in his last three starts — that’s the same number of long balls he’d allowed in his previous 28 starts combined, dating back to last season. 

Arrieta’s decision to sit out the All-Star game despite being well rested, coupled with his recent struggles, has raised serious questions about his health. While Arrieta has been quick to brush off any injury rumors, something is going on. The magic he captured for all of 2015 and the first two months of his 2016 campaign just hasn’t been there over the last month. If he can recapture that feeling tonight, the doubters will go away. 

If not, things will get interesting. Fans will worry. The media will hound him. Rumors will swirl about possible deadline moves for a starter. Chicago will implode. OK, too far. But, things won’t be good. Jake Arrieta needs to pitch like himself tonight. 

Yesterday, I wrote in this space that the Cubs needed to prove that the Mets are “just another team,” to them. They did that last night in a convincing way. Jake Arrieta needs to do the same tonight. 

He got rocked by the Mets in game two of last year’s NLCS, allowing four runs in five innings. He had finally come down to Earth after his unprecedented streak of success. Two weeks ago, in his first trip back to Citi Field since Daniel Murphy and the Mets dismantled him last October, he looked awful. He allowed eight hits, four earned runs and threw 108 pitches in just 5.1 innings of work. 

Tonight, the Cubs’ ace needs to prove two things: that his struggles are behind him and that the metaphorical Mets’ monkey is off his back. 

How will he do that? Just like real estate, it’s all about three things for Arrieta: location, location, location. He needs to locate his pitches and prove he’s regained command of his breaking pitches. 

Jake Arrieta needs to pitch like Jake Arrieta tonight. If he goes the distance, if the Cubs can knock out Syndergaard early, and if Arrieta’s hand is lifted in victory in the end — all will be fine and well on the north side. 

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