Lining up postseason rotation no easy task for Cubs

Playoff experience of Lester, Lackey could put them in line for Games 1 and 2

September 13th, 2016

Really, Joe Maddon? You and the Cubs' information geeks really think it's smart to relegate to the back of your postseason rotation?

This isn't April, when Hendricks looked just fine working behind , and . It's September, and the Greg Maddux clone has hit spots with his high-80s fastballs and nose-diving changeups for so long that he is emerging as arguably the National League Cy Young Award front-runner.

What about Monday night?

Hendricks mowed down a desperate Cardinals team for eight innings before 's leadoff homer in the ninth ended a no-hit bid at Busch Stadium. These were the exact circumstances that Hendricks will face in October, and he passed this test with flying colors.

Jim Deshaies, the terrific television analyst, used the late innings of the game to recall his skepticism the first time Rick Sutcliffe dropped a Maddux comparison on Hendricks in conversation. He said he's seen the light.

"Only thing is, if you're going to be Greg Maddux, you have to do [this] for 20 years,'' Deshaies said. "But this has been a Greg Maddux-like year.''

The 26-year-old Dartmouth product is in only his second full season, but he has been the most effective pitcher in the Major Leagues since mid-June, going 11-1 with a 1.29 ERA in his past 15 starts. He's 15-7 overall and has an 0.96 WHIP, second only to 's 0.92 among qualifiers.

Hendricks is in line to win the first NL ERA title by a Cubs pitcher since 1945 -- his 2.03 mark is almost a half run better than runner-up 's 2.48 -- but he could have to wait until Game 4 to make his first appearance in an NL Division Series.

Sound crazy?

In fairness to Maddon, this is speculation, as the manager hasn't committed to any of this. He's facing a situation with no clear-cut answers. How often do managers have to balance the potential contributions of three Cy Young Award candidates on one staff?

Hendricks, Lester and Arrieta have been extremely reliable for a team on pace to win 104 games, and both Lackey and apparent odd-man-out also rank in the league's top 16 in ERA. You could pull names out of a hat and not go wrong.

Nothing is set in stone, but Maddon recently tweaked his rotation in a way that has Lester and Lackey set to start the final two games of the regular season. This puts them on track to start Games 1 and 2 of the NL Division Series at Wrigley Field, with Arrieta and Hendricks in line for Games 3 and 4 (if necessary) on the road -- most likely after throwing simulated games on Oct. 4 and 5, during a four-day break for the Cubs.

Lackey (9-8, 3.35 in 26 starts) seems more surprising for Game 2 than Lester does for Game 1. But he's quietly compiled a 1.86 ERA in his past six starts, including two after a short stint on the disabled list, and he is currently lined up to start ahead of Arrieta, the 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner who is 17-6 with a 2.91 ERA, and Hendricks.

How did we reach that conclusion? Here goes.

will start Thursday, as the Cubs stick to a six-man rotation, which Maddon has used regularly since a doubleheader on Aug. 16 forced him to add a starter. He's been able to handle his starts with October in mind for months now, thanks to a 51-26 start, which gave his powerhouse an 11-game lead on June 29.

Montgomery will work out of the bullpen in October, assuming he carves out a spot in the seven- or eight-man mix, so look for him to return to relief duty next week. The rotation as lined up has Arrieta and Hendricks making three more starts apiece, with Arrieta's last one coming on Wednesday, Sept. 28, and Hendricks getting his final start the following day. Lester and Lackey would make four more starts each, including the prized ones on Oct. 1-2, which are the likely stepping stones to NLDS Games 1 and 2 on Oct. 7-8.

This could be shuffled easily down the stretch, of course. General manager Jed Hoyer said as much on Monday. But little is done without great thought in a Theo Epstein operation, so don't be shocked if the Cubs do stick with their starters in this order: Lester, Lackey, Arrieta and Hendricks.

Epstein and Maddon love the experience and competitive fire of Lester -- whose two-year record of 27-16 with a 2.95 ERA over 60 starts has been overshadowed due to the excellence of Arrieta and Hendricks -- and Lackey. These two former Red Sox teammates are hardened big-game warriors who have combined to make 34 postseason starts and earn four World Series rings.

Maddon was a coach with the Angels when Lackey won Game 7 of the 2002 World Series as a rookie. Maddon knows how tough Lackey was last October when, as a member of the Cardinals, he beat the Cubs in Game 1 of the NLDS at Wrigley Field. Maddon doesn't have to worry if Lester and Lackey will get out over their skis when it's time to validate the regular season in the postseason.

That's a legitimate concern for Hendricks, who had a 5.19 ERA in his starts against the Cardinals and Mets last October. But Maddux is not the only comparison for Hendricks. Hendricks has always seemed more like Orel Hershiser to me because of the movement on his pitches.

Hershiser was a great postseason pitcher who always said the key to his success was maintaining his level from the regular season, not trying to raise it. Hershiser said hitters were more likely to expand the strike zone and press for hits in October than June, which played into his hand.

Hendricks, the least outwardly emotional pitcher in the Cubs' mix, is like Hershiser. He thrives by executing pitches in low gear. Who cares that Hendricks' hardest pitch on Monday was clocked at 91 mph? He threw strikes with his changeup whenever he wanted (28 of 36 pitches), and opponents are hitting .130 off that changeup this season.

Hendricks has a 1.21 ERA at Wrigley Field this season, which also argues for him to have a spot near the front of the rotation, not the back.

Maddon may not announce his rotation until Oct. 6 (the eve of NLDS Game 1), but it'll be apparent by how the starters line up the last week of the regular season. Until then, enjoy the debate. It's going to get loud.