CHICAGO — Jake Arrieta almost certainly won’t win a second straight NL Cy Young Award. He likely won’t be the No. 1 or 2 postseason pitcher for the loaded Chicago Cubs, either.
Arrieta showed Friday he can still dominate. And he figures it’s because he’s stopped trying so hard.
Arrieta struck out 10 in seven innings and the Cubs beat the sloppy St. Louis Cardinals 5-0 for their 98th victory, the most since they last played in the World Series in 1945. Chicago clinched home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs.
“A lot of the time more effort creates some inconsistencies in my delivery,” Arrieta said. “Trying to do more than I have to. I had several outs today where I took my foot off the gas and I was at 60-70 percent and got nice, easy groundballs to second base or shortstop.”
Manager Joe Maddon said Arrieta looked “familiar” when he struck out the side on 11 pitches in the first inning, a reference to his 22-win 2015 season that included a 1.77 ERA. Arrieta said “competitiveness and stubbornness” have been the reasons his walks, hits and runs are up from a year ago.
“We’ve been hyper-critical of him all year based on what he did last year,” Maddon said. “But to his credit, I think he’s handled that very well.”
With veteran Miguel Montero back catching him, Arrieta (18-7) allowed five hits and walked one. Anthony Rizzo had three hits and Ben Zobrist drove in two runs as the Cubs tied a team record with their 56th home win.
Chicago scored four runs in the first inning off Mike Leake (9-11) and dropped the Cardinals one game behind the Mets and a half-game behind the Giants for the two NL wild-card berths.
Pedro Strop came off the disabled list to work the eighth, and Travis Wood and Carl Edwards Jr. finished the five-hitter.
Rizzo, Zobrist and Chris Coghlan drove in runs in the first off Leake, who lasted 3 1/3 innings and is winless in four starts since recovering from shingles.
“I couldn’t locate early. I was slightly erratic,” Leake said. “I just started out on the wrong foot.”
Leake allowed another run on one of two wild pitches. Cardinals’ gaffes included Kolten Wong face-planting into the turf chasing Rizzo’s first-inning double and Matt Adams getting picked off first.
Leake gave up five runs, seven hits and three walks. Manager Mike Matheny used six relievers.
The Cardinals are hoping to return to Wrigley Field in two weeks. But that requires earning one of the two wild-card berths and then winning the single-elimination game for a spot in the division series.
Zobrist’s fourth-inning groundout added another run for Chicago (98-55), which has won four straight.
The Cubs have so much depth as they seek their first World Series title since 1908 that Arrieta is likely the No. 3 playoff starter behind Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks.
But Arrieta feels if he can “control his effort,” he’ll be at his best come October.
“I don’t give up many hits,” Arrieta said. “So if I can keep guys off base via the walk, I’m going to be in a pretty good spot.”
Cardinals: LF Matt Holliday (broken right thumb) took batting practice off RHP Mike Mayers before the game. “He blistered a couple balls,” Matheny said. “It was exciting to see.” Holliday will likely have another BP session before he’s activated. … SS Aledmys Diaz (arm fatigue) was out of the lineup.
Cubs: Strop (knee, groin) worked around a leadoff walk in his first appearance since Aug. 10. “Once he settled in and the slider became his pitch again, he felt at home,” Maddon said.
GROOMSMAN STRIKES OUT
Arrieta and Cardinals 2B Matt Carpenter were college teammates at TCU. Arrieta was Carpenter’s wedding groomsman. Yet Carpenter can’t solve his friend. He went 0 for 3 with two strikeouts, leaving him 0 for 24 in the regular season against Arrieta.
LHP Jaime Garcia will take the Cardinals rotation spot of struggling RHP Luke Weaver on Monday vs. Cincinnati.
Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts presented retiring C David Ross with the No. 3 from the Wrigley Field manual scoreboard before the game.
RHP Jason Hammel (15-9, 3.56 ERA), contending for the final Cubs postseason rotation spot, faces rookie RHP Alex Reyes (3-1, 1.08) on Saturday.