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Cubs should lean on lefty starters in NLDS

Champs may line up Lester, Quintana for Games 1 and 2 on road vs. Nationals
MLB.com @philgrogers

CHICAGO -- Talk about a great barroom argument. How to line up the Cubs' starting rotation for the National League Division Series is a question without a clear answer, and that's by no means bad.

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CHICAGO -- Talk about a great barroom argument. How to line up the Cubs' starting rotation for the National League Division Series is a question without a clear answer, and that's by no means bad.

Shop for Cubs NL Central champs gear

You can argue for Chicago manager Joe Maddon to line up Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana in almost any order and not be wrong. All of them are arguably worthy of starting Game 1 -- and thus maybe a deciding Game 5 -- and that's why they're probably more likely to knock off the Nationals than conventional wisdom would seem to suggest.

Speaking on MLB Network Radio, Jim Bowden said he likes the Nats' Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark over whoever the Cubs run out against them. That's a bold statement given that it's the Cubs, not the Nationals, who have had the best rotation ERA (3.45) in the NL since the All-Star break, and that the Cubs have the edge in postseason experience (and success).

While Lester's 4.79 ERA in the second half raises concerns, the only real unknowns for Maddon are Quintana -- and the Cubs have won seven of his past eight starts -- and the status of Arrieta's right hamstring.

Quintana is untested in the postseason, but he handled his first start after arriving from the White Sox with class, throwing seven shutout innings at Baltimore back in July. He inspires trust. Arrieta knows how to get himself ready for the starts that matter the most.

Video: CHC@BAL: Quintana fans 12 over seven in Cubs debut

Here's how I'd line up the Cubs' starters:

Game 1 in Washington: Lester vs. Scherzer
Lining up left-handers to face the Dodgers was a no-brainer last season, as they had hit only .213 against southpaws. The Nationals are much more balanced than that with Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman in the middle of the lineup, but I'd still set up lefties to start three of the five games.

Lefties gain a platoon advantage against Daniel Murphy and Bryce Harper and move switch-hitter Trea Turner to the right side of the plate, where he has a .293 on-base percentage (vs. .347 hitting left-handed). Keeping Turner off base is the best way to keep him from running wild, as Nats skipper Dusty Baker is sure to push the action when he has a chance.

What about Lester's problem throwing to bases? The Cubs threw out two of four Nationals runners attempting to steal off him on June 29. It's an issue, but it hasn't stopped the Cubs from going 47-22 in Lester's starts the past two years, including a 5-1 record last postseason.

One other thing: Lester has the mental toughness to go toe to toe with Scherzer at Nationals Park, which will be a hostile environment. So do Arrieta and Hendricks, but they're right-handers.

Game 2 in Washington: Quintana vs. Strasburg
Not only has Quintana never pitched in the postseason, but he's never faced Washington. He'll have nerves to deal with, for sure, but it should help him to get into action this early.

Quintana has been on a roll in September (2-0, 1.63 ERA in four starts with 31 strikeouts and only four walks in 27 2/3 innings). One benefit of starting him in Game 2 is he can be used as an extra lefty out of the bullpen in Game 5, if he's needed. Strasburg, who will be making only his second career postseason start, has put together an 0.98 ERA in 55 innings since the All-Star break.

Game 3 in Chicago: Gonzalez vs. Arrieta
The Cubs wouldn't have won the World Series if Arrieta didn't pitch well in Games 2 and 6 last fall, and they may not have established themselves as a postseason force had he not shut down the Pirates in the NL Wild Card Game two years ago at PNC Park. He's a good fit for this start no matter what happens in Washington.

Arrieta's 2.28 ERA in the second half is the best among NL starters who have worked at least 60 innings.

The Nationals will try to take advantage of Arrieta's slow time to the plate, but they were running at least as much on catcher Miguel Montero as Arrieta when they stole seven bases on June 27, including four by Turner and two by Michael Taylor. Willson Contreras should help keep order.

Video: CHC@WSH: Turner, Taylor, Rendon set Nats team record

This could be an extremely emotional night for Arrieta, who is on the verge of free agency.

Game 4 in Chicago: Roark vs. Hendricks
Hendricks' biggest moment as a Cub came when he won the clinching Game 6 of the NL Championship Series over the Dodgers, sending the Cubs to the World Series for the first time since 1945.

Hendricks has a 2.38 ERA in seven postseason starts -- the best among a Cubs four-man rotation that has combined for a 22-16 career record in postseason starts -- and he has a 2.34 ERA in 12 second-half starts. He's probably not a No. 4 starter in any rotation other than the one he's in. That's a sign of why the Cubs are going to be hard for any team to beat.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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