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Jon Lester has to start Game 1, doesn't he? Followed by Kyle Hendricks in NLDS contest No. 2 and Jose Quintana in the one after that?
The Cubs brain trust will apparently meet Wednesday to hash out the postseason rotation and I suppose there is some uncertainty going into that pow wow. But the answers seem relatively clear. The fact that the Nationals are better against righties, but only slightly better, gives going with two lefties in the first three games the most appeal.
But given Quintana's lack of playoff experience, no way do you move him up past Game 3.
One more thing in favor of this order: going lefty-righty-lefty in the first three games has a fundamental baseball appeal of giving the Nationals very different looks each day.
As for the fourth starting pitcher spot, well, that all depends on Jake Arrieta's balky hamstring. Fortunately for the Cubs, John Lackey is ready to step in if Arrieta can't go. The fact that Lackey pitched an inning of relief of Sunday seemed a clear sign that he will not be inactive when the playoffs kick off on Friday in prime time (6:31) in the District (of Columbia).
The toughest part of starting Lester is the potential mayhem on the bases. Washington speedster Trea Turner is back after a long stint on the disabled list in the middle of the season and the Cubs have to be having flashbacks to a mid-season match-up with the Nationals that went quite poorly thanks in large part to Turner's aggressiveness on the basepaths.
Then again, the starting pitcher in that game who saw Turner steal four bases in late June was Jake Arrieta, and the catcher was the dearly departed (from the Cubs, not the living) Miguel Montero. And of course, that was the 6-1 loss that was followed by Montero popping off about Arrieta not releasing his pitches quickly enough (he made no mention of his own poor pop times - the time it takes a catcher to release a throw - contributing to the problem as well). That was followed by Montero's release.
Anyway, a few starts ago (Sept. 20) against Tampa Bay, Lester had one of his worst outings as a Cub. He was distracted early by baserunners taking liberties and he gave up seven runs in 4.1 innings. It appeared he had not completely recovered from a back injury.
But he was much better in his last two starts, as the Cubs won nine of 11 down a final stretch that featured eight road games with the Brewers and the Cardinals.
Turner could be a significant problem. But he can't steal first base (Yes, I know I am approximately the one millionth sportswriter to write those words. All I can say is, they work). And what Lester has shown time and again is that in clutch situations, he does such a good job keeping guys off the bases that the negative consequences that come with his difficulty throwing to bases are almost moot.
Now, about that roster. It seems clear that the Cubs will use 12 pitchers and 13 position players. The players are Albert Almora, Jr., Alex Avila, Javy Baez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Ian Happ, Jason Heyward, Jon Jay, Tommy La Stella, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Ben Zobrist. Leonys Martin is the odd man out and I supposed they could keep him and drop a pitcher or maybe La Stella (and his .488 on-base percentage as a pinch-hitter? No). Neither of those moves seems even slightly rational.
The pitchers are the aforementioned five starters plus Wade Davis (a righty of course), Brian Duensing (L), Carl Edwards, Jr. (R), Mike Montgomery (L), Hector Rondon (R), Pedro Strop (R) and Justin Wilson (L). I suppose Justin Grimm could sneak in there somehow but again, not bloody likely.
You have to worry about the bullpen, especially with Joe Maddon's tendency to pull starters early even if the bullpen doesn't seem properly equipped to take games the rest of the way.
But why worry at this point? The Cubs won the division title for the second year in a row with a rock-solid 92 victories. They are the first defending World Series champs to even make the postseason the next year in five years. They even finished ahead of the Cardinals again. This is only the second time since the turn of the millennium that the Cards have missed the playoffs twice consecutively.
Ladies and gentlemen, your 2017 playoff Cubs! It is a hell of a roster with great balance and flexibility.
Jim "Coach" Coffman welcomes your comments.
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