ST.LOUIS -- Now that the Chicago Cubs are back in the postseason, the first order of business is setting up their rotation for their best-of-five National League Division Series against the Washington Nationals.
Manager Joe Maddon and Cubs brass have revealed very little about who their No. 1 starter will be in October. That’s the biggest discussion point in a best-of-five scenario, because the Game 1 starter is the one with the potential to start two games: the series opener and a potential do-or-die Game 5. So how could the rotation shake out once the postseason begins?
Who’s No. 1?
Last season, the Cubs’ starter on the final Saturday of the regular season started their first postseason game, and the Sunday starter was on the mound for Game 2. This year, they have Jon Lester scheduled to pitch Saturday against the Cincinnati Reds, with Jake Arrieta going on Sunday. Those two pitchers starting the first two games of the playoffs made sense weeks ago when the Cubs set up their end of season rotation, but things have changed drastically since then.
Arrieta is still feeling the effects of a hamstring injury suffered on Sept. 4. Tuesday's start against the St. Louis Cardinals did not go well, and Arrieta admitted afterward to altering his style due to the lingering issue with his right leg.
“I don’t have the drive that I do at 100 percent,” Arrieta said. “It’s still plenty enough to be effective. ... There’s still some recovering to do, but having said that, I’m plenty healthy enough to go out there and be really good.”
"Plenty enough" doesn't scream Game 1 starter, not when he may have to pitch Game 5, as well. Likewise, Lester isn't exactly mowing batters down. He has a 4.94 ERA since returning from his own disabled list stint. Why mess with what’s staring them in the face: Two other starters -- one in particular -- are performing at a higher level than either Lester or Arrieta. Plus, they're healthier.
So who should it be?
“Once you get in [to the playoffs], you play it all the way out,” Maddon said recently. “Make sure everyone is well, and then remember who your opposition is going to be, and then you decide.”
Without internal, proprietary information, it’s hard to know which of the other two starters, Kyle Hendricks or Jose Quintana, matches up best for potentially two starts against the Nationals, mostly because Quintana has never faced them. That can be a good thing, but not enough for him to take the reins in Game 1. Hendricks has proven he can handle the big games, both at home and on the road. In the past, the Cubs have protected Hendricks, but he's at the point of his career that no moment is too big for him. Maddon recently let him throw 112 pitches, and Hendricks was actually asking for more. That's telling. So is his career 2.67 ERA against the Nationals. He should be the Cubs' Game 1 and Game 5 starter.
“Kyle Hendricks is pitching as well as anyone on this team and among the best in the league right now,” Maddon said recently.
Was that an endorsement for the Dartmouth alum? It sure sounded like one.
This is where it gets difficult based on Arrieta's injury. If the Cubs determine an extra two days would help heal his right leg a little more, they should hold him back for Game 3. Otherwise, he gets the ball in Washington for Game 2. His last performance at Nationals Park is misleading. He gave up six runs in four innings, but Washington ran all day on him and catcher Miguel Montero, changing the dynamic of the outing. That won't be as big an issue with Willson Contreras behind the plate. Arrieta was having a great second half until the injury. He should be able to power through for one start in the first round. He's your Game 2 starter -- assuming good enough health.
The Cubs paid a heavy price to acquire Quintana, but it’s hard to imagine a playoff series without Lester pitching in it. Then again, it’s also hard to imagine a sweep by either team in this series. Quintana and Lester are both likely to get a turn against Washington, though one of them has to go first.
“It is a tough one,” Maddon said recently in regard to Lester.
The Cubs’ manager was referencing the dual notion that Lester is a proven October commodity yet isn’t pitching his best right now. Sure, his start Monday against the Cardinals was a good step, but it may not have been playoff-good.
Do the Cubs play the hotter hand or the more experienced hand in Game 3?
The answer is Quintana, who happens to be fresh off a shutout, partly because he’s never faced Washington. If the Cubs get swept and Quintana’s curveball never gets a chance to fool a lineup that has never seen him, the team may have wasted an opportunity.
Lester isn’t having a typical Jon Lester season, but he has a history of coming up big in October. Lester slots in here over good friend John Lackey.
Even though home runs should go down in October, there is no guarantee that the conditions will be favorable to Lackey. With the talent and experience the Cubs have on the mound, they can’t start a pitcher who’s given up 36 home runs, the most in the NL.
Even though Lackey has shown the ability to settle down after early damage, a playoff game can be decided by an early long ball.
Besides, in no way should the Cubs run away from Lester completely, as a good case can be made that he’s still better than most No. 4 starters in the playoffs. The three pitchers ahead of him simply deserve it more.
“Let’s just play this out,” Maddon said. “When you get there, you make your best guesses based on who you’re going to play. That’s part of it also.”
The Nationals are dangerous against righties and lefties, at home and on the road. That’s one reason they basically went wire-to-wire in the NL East. Given their balance of strengths at the plate, it’s not really about the Nats when setting up the rotation for this series, it’s about the Cubs. Hendricks, Arrieta and Quintana -- in that order -- give Chicago the best chance to win. It's not like Lester won't be pitching in a big game if the series goes that far. Game 4 is a potential clinching one for one team or the other.