Cubs lining up Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta for first two games of NLCS


Cubs lining up Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta for first two games of NLCS

The Cubs announced their rotation for the first two games of the National League Championship Series Thursday, lining up Jon Lester for Game 1 and Jake Arrieta for Game 2.

With the NLCS opener on Saturday in New York, it would be exactly five days in between starts for Arrieta, who started Monday against the Cardinals at Wrigley Field.

[RELATED - Addison Russell will miss NLCS with hamstring strain]

But the Cubs aren't going to push their ace, instead opting to keep Lester's turn in the rotation as is.

"It's nice giving Jake an extra day," manager Joe Maddon said. "Really, part of the strategy was to not pitch Jon [in Game 4 of the NLDS] so he was ready for the fifth game or to come into the first game of the next round.

"It kind of played out well, so that's how we're going to set it up in the beginning. I'm really comfortable. They'll both be starters in two games [this series], possibly. That's what we're most comfortable with."

By the time Game 1 comes around, Lester will have had seven days off in between starts after he got the ball in the NLDS opener in St. Louis last Friday.

Arrieta is in prime physical shape and even though he actually looked human against the Cardinals, he's still been the best pitcher on the planet for the last few months.

So does Arrieta really need the extra day of rest?

"He'll probably tell you he would not, but I like the idea that he has it," Maddon said. "We've been pushing him pretty hard. His innings are way up compared to where they've been in the past.

"This postseason, I've talked about it before - it's beyond the physical drain, it's the emotional drain. He went through a really difficult moment [in the wild-card game] in Pittsburgh that night and he set this whole thing up for us.

"Any time you can give a guy both an emotional and a physical break, you take advantage of that right now."

[MORE: Cubs see World Series window opening]

Maddon didn't release the rest of the rotation beyond Game 2, but he did admit the Cubs would probably use four starters, meaning Kyle Hendricks could be in line for Game 3 back at Wrigley Field and Jason Hammel (who lasted just three innings in Game 4 of the NLDS Tuesday) could get the ball in Game 4 of the NLCS.

Beyond that, Maddon also admitted they have had discussions about how the entire NLCS plays out. If the series goes to seven games, the Cubs hope Lester and Arrieta would be able to take the ball once more each (think Games 5 and 6) as a starter, and Maddon didn't rule out either being available out of the bullpen if necessary.

"Of course they would be, but if your regular relief pitchers are ready, I'm good with those guys," Maddon said. "Our relief pitchers have pitched really well. I'm not opposed to using a starter in that moment. Not at all.

"But that would be the fact that the other guys are unavailable or maybe overworked, something to that extent. It's different to come out of the bullpen. I've done it before; I'm not afraid to do it. But I'd rather use the other guys first."

The Mets (Jacob deGrom) were forced to use their top starter for Game 5 of the NLDS, meaning he would probably not be available until Game 3 of the NLCS.

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The Cubs, meanwhile, have plenty of time to rest and are grateful they didn't have to make the trip to St. Louis or use Lester in a Game 5.

After all, giving him the ball in Game 1 of a crucial playoff series is what they signed him for.

"Jon Lester in a big game is always tasty," Maddon said. "You'll always take that. I have no problem with any of that.

"I really expect well. I know he's very confident. I think this little extra rest is going to help, too."

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.