NEW YORK (AP) — Somewhere between Pittsburgh and Chicago, Jake Arrieta lost his unhittable aura.
He didn’t find it in New York, that’s for sure.
Arrieta gave up base hits to his first three batters — including Daniel Murphy’s latest postseason homer — and the Chicago Cubs were unable to recover Sunday night in a 4-1 loss to the New York Mets that left them down 2-0 in the NL Championship Series.
“I put us in a pretty big hole there at the start, one that was a little too hard to overcome,” Arrieta said.
The good news for the wild-card Cubs is they’re headed home to Wrigley Field, with Game 3 in the best-of-seven set scheduled for Tuesday night. But they’ll need quite a comeback to claim their first pennant in seven decades as they try to end that World Series championship drought that dates to 1908.
“We’ve got work to do,” Arrieta said. “Two tough games here, but the series is not over. We feel good where we’re at.”
Arrieta led the majors with 22 wins and was so dominant after the All-Star break, his second-half performance ranks as one of the best in baseball history. He went 11-0 with a 0.41 ERA in 12 starts from Aug. 4 through the end of the season, then pitched a five-hit shutout at Pittsburgh to win the NL wild-card game.
But with his 2015 total now approaching 250 innings, the Cy Young Award contender has been much less effective in his last two outings.
“I physically felt fine. I knew the high-end (velocity) wasn’t necessarily there tonight. Threw quite a few changeups to offset that,” Arrieta said.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon was asked if he thinks Arrieta’s workload has taken a toll.
“I can’t deny that it might be. I don’t know that,” Maddon said. “If that (radar) gun was correct on the field, he might have been down a mile an hour or two.”
“From the side, delivery was good. He was not laboring to throw the ball. It’s just, it wasn’t as crisp as it had been, that’s all,” the manager added.
After a long string of sensational starts, Arrieta finally got touched up at home by St. Louis in Game 3 of the Division Series. He yielded four runs and five hits in 5 2-3 innings of an 8-6 win that left him 2-0 with a 2.45 ERA and 20 strikeouts in two playoff outings.
Working on an extra day of rest against the Mets, the right-hander fell behind 3-0 after 13 pitches at chilly Citi Field.
“That was the game right there,” Maddon said. “It was really hard to recover from that.”
Pitching in short sleeves on a windy, 45-degree night, Arrieta gave up a leadoff single to Curtis Granderson and a hit-and-run double to slumping David Wright that put the Mets ahead.
Murphy reached down for a 1-2 curve and hooked it into the right-field corner for his fifth homer in these playoffs. He has connected in four consecutive games.
“I don’t know so much that it was a lack of Jake’s ability as much as it was a pretty hot hitter,” Maddon said.
Including the postseason, Arrieta had gone 25 straight starts (since May 29 against Kansas City) without allowing a run in the first inning, according to STATS.
It was only the second time he gave up at least three runs in the first. The other game also came against the Royals, on July 30, 2010, STATS said.
“They came out pretty aggressive. Took advantage of a couple of balls elevated in the strike zone. The curveball to Murphy wasn’t that bad of a pitch,” Arrieta said. “I didn’t do a good enough job of minimizing mistakes.”
Arrieta issued a leadoff walk in the third to Granderson, who stole second and third before scoring on Yoenis Cespedes’ infield single.
With his team trailing 4-0, Arrieta was pulled for a pinch-hitter to start the sixth. The five innings matched his shortest start of the year.
When the Cubs were unable to rally, Arrieta was handed his first loss since July 25 against Philadelphia. After that, he won 13 consecutive decisions — including the playoffs.
But still, no Cubs pitcher has won three games in one postseason.
“Jake wasn’t as sharp as he can be, but he definitely held serve,” Maddon said. “The ambush early got us.”
Arrieta was outpitched by New York rookie Noah Syndergaard, who lost his major league debut to Arrieta at Wrigley Field in May.
This time, Syndergaard carried a one-hit shutout into the sixth. He was lifted after Kris Bryant smacked an RBI double off the left-field wall, but the Cubs couldn’t get anything going against New York’s bullpen.
Chicago is batting .159 in the series with three extra-base hits. The Cubs have one NLCS home run after hitting 12 in their first five playoff games.
END OF THE ROAD
Arrieta’s only other defeat on the road this year came on May 7 at St. Louis. He entered Sunday night 14-1 with a 1.49 ERA away from home, including the wild-card game.