The last time Jake Arrieta pitched at Wrigley Field before Wednesday night, he was booed as he left the mound at the end of his start. That was in the second inning.
This time he was booed in the first, when he allowed seven runs during an 11-batter inning for the Brewers.
It’s about time for Arrieta to decide if there is a next time.
And if so, whether that will be in another attempt to rescue his lost reunion season with the Cubs in a couple of weeks against the Rockies or whether it’ll be standing alongside his family and waving to an appreciative crowd cheering some of the greatest moments in franchise history that he provided during the peak of his career.
That peak is as gone as the Cubs’ All-Star hitting core that got shipped out en masse last month.
Which isn’t the problem as much as the months-long valley he shows no signs of escaping.
And that’s not even a problem for the Cubs — who punted on this season weeks ago — as much as it is for Arrieta, the former Cy Young winner, workhorse champion and franchise legend.
For now, it looks like he and the Cubs are content to trade off that track record and leverage that experience to help a group of pitching prospects the Cubs are trying to turn into impact big-leaguers.
“Would I have liked to pitch better throughout the season?” said Arrieta, who stuck around long enough Wednesday to give up eight runs in four innings. “Of course. Now the job description includes a lot more than just that. It’s about helping these young guys grow. And finding any way that I can in my power to have success, and that’s important.”
This wasn’t what either side had in mind when Arrieta, 35, signed that $6 million deal during the Cubs’ cost-cutting winter to return to the scene of his — and the franchise’s — greatest accomplishments.
Certainly not Arrieta. And certainly not after he got off to a 3-2 start with a 2.57 ERA in his first five starts.
Since then: 2-9 with an 8.28 ERA in 15 starts.
What happened? Why? How did such high expectations and a good start devolve into such a miserable 15-start stretch that includes nine starts of four innings or less — including the last five straight?
“I got nothing for you, man,” he said. “I’m doing the best I can. And that’s what I’ll continue to do.”
Imagine in 2017 — the year Arrieta earned the Cubs' last playoff win — somebody trying to predict Arrieta would be booed by Cubs fans.
“Jake’s in a unique spot where he’s trying to clean up his year, like some of the other guys around here, and finish strong and continue his baseball career,” manager David Ross said before Arrieta’s first start at home since getting rocked by the Phillies for seven runs in less than two innings in the final loss of the Cubs’ season-killing, 11-game losing streak.
“And also there’s moments I’m sure he should take in, at a place where he’s done really special things and continues to impact this organization and the young guys here.”
That’s the compromised place the Cubs and Arrieta share now in a relationship that began with one of the best trades in franchise history in 2013 and ascended to mutual heights unseen at Wrigley Field — only to descend during this second act into an unexpected and awkward symbiosis with what amounts to a player-coach.
Ross seems to remain committed to Arrieta’s ongoing place in a six-man rotation.
Whether that is still the case when prospect Keegan Thompson is promoted to join the rotation in the next few weeks is unclear.
For now, the organization seems to have deferred to Arrieta on whatever comes next, perhaps even start to start, given his on-field heroics and prominence during their championship window.
For the manager, it’s even more personal after sharing that stage and spotlight as a teammate in 2015 and ’16.
“Me, personally, outside of being the manager, I would definitely like to give him as much runway as possible,” Ross said before Wednesday’s game. “This game is harsh at times, too. There’s some hard realities in this game that don’t always allow that.”
Realities like the fallout of clobbering a bullpen with big innings loads every five or six days.
“I think he believes in himself and wants to prove to himself every time he’s out there that he believes in his stuff and can still get big-league hitters out,” Ross said. “I support that for sure.”
Confidence has never been in short supply for Arrieta — even now, he said.
“Obviously, the confidence doesn’t match the results, and that’s something I’m going to have to deal with,” he said.
For now. Until the results start to change. Or until the Cubs have to deal with it.