When Jake Arrieta takes the mound on Friday against the Braves at Wrigley Field, it'll be the second time he suits up as the Cubs' ace since Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel were both packaged in a trade to Oakland. Although being thrust atop the rotation may seem like a tall order for the 28-year-old right-hander, who entered 2014 with a career 5.16 ERA and 1.41 WHIP, it's a role he's played before.
Arrieta had a standout career at Texas Christian, winning 14 games his sophomore season in 2006. As he finds himself in the No. 1 spot in the Cubs' rotation, he said it's similar to his college days.
"It's kind of a role I've embraced and been in in the past," Arrieta said. "I was the guy in college and enjoyed that role. The college game is completely different and the season is structured a completely different way, but I still understand that role.
"I've been willing and able and ready to accept those responsibilities for a while. The performance pushes me more in that direction than I expected."
Arrieta's 1.78 ERA through 12 starts and 70 2/3 innings is off the charts, but his counterpart on Friday night, Alex Wood, has numbers that are nothing to scoff at, either.
Wood has posted a 3.14 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 76 strikeouts to just 20 walks in 80 1/3 innings this season. The 23-year-old southpaw has allowed two earned runs or fewer while completing at least seven innings in six of his 10 starts. Wood has produced three strong starts since experiencing a month-long stint in the bullpen to limit his innings.
In his last start, Wood threw seven innings of two-run ball against Arizona, but he was saddled with the loss after a walk to the opposing pitcher prolonged the third inning long enough for Paul Goldschmidt to dent the left-field foul pole with a two-out, two-run home run.
"I think that's probably the first time I've ever walked a pitcher, but it happens," Wood said. "I felt like I battled pretty well all day. Usually, they make you pay when you walk anybody, much less the pitcher. It's still really no excuse to let the one guy in their lineup that you knew and had a good plan for, beat you."
Cubs: Renteria not taking credit for Castro, Rizzo
One of the reasons the Cubs hired Rick Renteria as their manager was because of his skills in developing young players, and two of them will represent the organization in the All-Star Game.
Starlin Castro was named to the National League All-Star team, while Anthony Rizzo won the NL Final Vote on Thursday. Both are coming back from disappointing 2013 seasons. Renteria was quick to say he could not take credit for the turnaround by the two 24-year-old players.
"Those guys have worked hard and done what they need to do to move forward," Renteria said. "Give the credit to the coaches and everybody who has been working with these guys and having conversations with them on a daily basis. Give them credit for going out there and playing the game."
Castro struggled to bat .245 last season, while Rizzo batted .233. They were far removed from any All-Star consideration.
"We knew coming in that these guys have skill and aptitude to play the game," Renteria said. "They've found a sense of comfort, confidence, another year of experience under their belts -- there's any number of things that could contribute to it. Up to this point, it's gratifying you have two young men on your ballclub who have done really well."
Braves: Gonzalez wary of getting bench more starts
When the Braves were caught up in a nine-game winning streak, no one questioned manager Fredi Gonzalez for penciling in familiar lineups each day. But now that they've found themselves in a small funk, mixing up his bench might be something to consider.
On cue, Gonzalez started Ramiro Pena -- making his third start in the last 13 games -- at third base Thursday in place of Chris Johnson. But the lineup has otherwise remained fairly consistent, with Jordan Schafer, Ryan Doumit and Dan Uggla only starting once over that span.
"I haven't done a real good job of playing my bench here lately," said Gonzalez. "It's easy with the catchers. You don't worry about [first baseman Freddie] Freeman, he wants to play all the time. But sometimes the other guys, you go, 'Man, when's the last time Schafer got a start? When's the last time Pena got a start?' Or even Ryan for that matter."
• The Cubs will host a 1960s-themed homestand against the Braves this weekend, all part of the season-long celebration of Wrigley Field's 100th anniversary. Each game in the series includes a promotional giveaway, offering fans a chance to collect an item commemorating the 60s at the ballpark.
Erik Bacharach is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.