Jake Arrieta was one strike away from getting out of the sixth inning Wednesday afternoon. Had he escaped, it would have been the first time he hadn't allowed multiple runs in a start since the end of May.
Emphasis on "Had."
Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina jumped on a hanging slider just over the outside edge and sent an Arrieta pitch into the stands for the second time in three at-bats for a two-run homer that tied the game.
Molina had homered just once against the righty in 34 previous chances, and although the mistake was not egregious, it still resulted in Arrieta remaining winless in the month of June. He was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the bottom half of the inning, and the Phillies regained the lead for good in the seventh inning of their 4-3 win.
"It's just tough to come out," Arrieta said. "Molina's a professional hitter, he's been doing it for a long time. I don't know if he was necessarily sitting on the slider in a full count, but I don't think it was a great pitch."
Until the sixth, Arrieta was cruising. Other than a first-pitch fastball that Molina turned into a towering solo shot to lead off the second, the Cardinals had just a fifth-inning single.
It was a far cry from Arrieta's last outing when he didn't even make it out of the fourth inning of a 13-2 loss at Milwaukee. Of the 18 outs Arrieta recorded Wednesday, eight came via the ground ball and only four left the infield.
"He's such a good preparer, he probably is fueled in his preparation by the last couple of outings," manager Gabe Kapler said. "I don't think he was doing anything different and that's the funny thing about baseball. He had deception, he had his movement in the previous outing as well.
"This is a round bat with a round ball — sometimes there's weak contact, sometimes there's hard contact."
When Arrieta was introduced as a Phillie in March, Kapler called it "a pretty perfect marriage." That appeared to be the case through four starts with the 32-year-old logging a 1.82 ERA and 3-0 record.
Ever since, the struggle has been very real, and all the more noticeable since the calendar flipped from May to June. His ERA now is 3.42, his record 5-5.
But neither the pitcher nor his manager seem concerned after Wednesday's game.
"My fastball command was pretty good," Arrieta said. "It still needs to improve a little bit, wasn't thrilled with it from start to finish, but sometimes you go through a period where you need to tighten some things up and get back on track."
With a scuffling bullpen, don't expect the pressure on Arrieta to lighten. The next time he takes the mound, it will be against the New York Yankees, a team featuring two of baseball's top power hitters and a lineup with very few weak spots.
An improved effort Wednesday needs to be a harbinger of better days ahead.