CHICAGO -- So, now what?
Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon conceded that it was unusual for him to clinch a playoff spot with nine games remaining in the regular season, as he’s used to it going down to the wire. But the Central Division teams have been so good, the Cubs, along with St. Louis and Pittsburgh, are the first three to clinch in the National League.
Maddon indicated it would be “business as usual” for the rest of the weekend series against the Pirates, then they’ll reassess where they are in the standings and whether they believe they can realistically catch Pittsburgh for home-field advantage in the wild-card game.
“We’re still trying to catch these guys, so I don’t want to get too far ahead,” Maddon said Saturday morning. “Let’s play [Saturday's] game and then tomorrow’s game and see where we’re at. Obviously it’s the team right ahead of us and we’ve played well against them all year. Let’s do these next two, and at the point it will be clearer what we need to do for the next week. We’ll do the appropriate things for that following week. I think primarily we’ve been able to give guys rest a lot this year. It’s not like guys are overtly tired out there. My biggest concern would be keeping pitchers fresh as much as anything. Hitters don’t want too much time off. Pitchers could be still backed off in a sense and still pitch well with a little different rest.”
As for the front office, those officials will start work on a wild-card roster. Until now they’ve only “penciled” some thoughts on paper, but with more than a week to play with it, they have plenty of time to fine-tune their needs.
“We’ll sit down and talk about it,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We’ll do a ton of advance scouting and preparation in advance of that one game. Every little advantage you can get in that game makes a huge difference.”
One big question is how many pitchers are needed on the roster in a one-game playoff. Remember, the Cubs can reset it if they advance to the division series. Hoyer indicated he and Theo Epstein haven’t experienced the one-game format previously, so the front office is looking at past rosters, including Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays. Most employ 16 position players and nine pitchers or 15 and 10.
“We’ve done some stuff in pencil in the office, but we haven’t taken it to Joe,” Hoyer said. “We’ll sit down in the next couple days and map things out.”
One thing the Cubs won’t do is skip Jake Arrieta. He’ll take his normal turn on Sunday night against the team he might face in a wild-card game then pitch again next Friday in advance of that playoff game on Oct. 7.
“I’ll probably come out Sunday and feature some stuff they’ve never seen before,” Arrieta half-joked Saturday morning. “Just mix it up. Knuckleball. Different kind of changeup the sequences are things I constantly change and constantly switch up, so it’s hard to find any patterns.”
As for his workload, which has already surpassed a career high in innings for one season, he’s not worried and he’s acting accordingly.
“At this point in the season I’ll take a day or two off from throwing during the week and continue to work on things,” Arrieta said.
Besides perhaps getting Anthony Rizzo a day off or giving a start to either Clayton Richard or Trevor Cahill -- the Cubs haven’t indicated they’re willing to do that -- there isn’t much more for them to do to prepare for the playoffs. Home-field advantage might be slipping away, but their chances to win on the road are still pretty good with Arrieta on the mound.
“Any little advantage you can get in the postseason makes a huge difference,” Hoyer said. “Sometimes it’s a small thing. No one really knows about it, but you know whether it’s a pitch called or a pickoff or a play or whatever it might be. Any little advantage we’ll take. We’ve been advanced scouting and preparing for a long time.”
The Cubs are reaching the end of a long road of rebuilding but are just beginning the steps necessary to win a championship.