Cubs weighing the possibility of keeping six-man rotation intact for stretch run

Cubs weighing the possibility of keeping six-man rotation intact for stretch run

The Cubs' offense has been fun to watch lately, but the team's 32-16 record since the All-Star Break has more to do with the starting rotation than the group of hitters Joe Maddon writes out on the lineup card each day.

Jake Arrieta is rolling, Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester are now both healthy and off the disabled list and John Lackey has rediscovered the fountain of youth, the Cubs have been able to right the ship even if Jose Quintana hasn't lived up to his pedigree since the mid-July trade.

Mike Montgomery has also been a huge factor in the rotation, rattling off back-to-back quality starts in Lester's stead before taking the loss Sunday after allowing three runs in five innings to the Atlanta Braves.

The question now is whether or not the Cubs keep Montgomery in the rotation after Lester's return Saturday.

Joe Maddon said before Montgomery's start Sunday the Cubs haven't yet made a determination on rolling with a six-man rotation, but they will know within a day or two so they can communicate with Montgomery and let him prepare for either another start in six days or a move back to the bullpen.

"It's possible [to stick with a six-man rotation]," Maddon said. "We're still trying to go step-by-step with this thing. We're trying to look at the big picture — every team we're playing and now that we have an extra guy, you can manipulate things a little bit. So that's what we're working on moving forward. He may get another start."

Maddon shot down the idea of performance having any impact on Montgomery's rotation life, acknowledging one start is way too small a sample size.

"Those are the conversations we're having," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. "First of all, [Montgomery's] earned being a member of the starting rotation and we have to decide are there times we're going to go with six? Are there times we're going to go back to five and really make some decisions based on our schedule, based on rest?

"Right now, we're playing a stretch of 20 in a row, so giving guys an extra day of rest makes a lot of sense. How we'll proceed going forward, I'm not sure. We really will go rotation turn by rotation turn and make those decisions, but as far as what he's done, I think he's earned that and he's really pitched well for us."

The Cubs haven't released anything official yet beyond the rotation for the four-game series with the Pirates in Pittsburgh this week:

Monday — Jake Arrieta
Tuesday — Kyle Hendricks
Wednesday — Jose Quintana
Thursday — Jon Lester

Maddon did, however, indicate Lackey would be in line to start Friday to kick off the Milwaukee Brewers series at Wrigley Field.

That turn through the rotation gives Arrieta, Quintana and Lackey an extra day of rest while Hendricks and Lester remain on a five-day rotation to build up arm strength and stamina after missing time with injuries.

The Cubs have kept careful watch over their starters all year after they pitched into November last fall. With their eyes on another deep postseason run, Maddon has yet to push any of the team's veteran starting pitchers much beyond the 100-pitch mark. That — coupled with time off on the disabled list for Hendricks, Lester and Lackey — the Cubs feel good about the state of the rotation in the season's final month.

Maddon admitted Lester's two-plus weeks off could actually be a blessing in disguise.

"Once you know it's not really anything bad and you know he's gonna be back relatively soon, then you look at that positive side," Maddon said. "Plus you have Mike Montgomery to fill in, so that also helps with that, too.

"Kyle Hendricks earlier went through the same thing and look at him right now and then also look at the number of innings pitched he had to this point, too. Good stuff.

"You never want injuries, but it's a long year and if you have the appropriate guys to fill in the gaps and guys get rest, then here we come this time of year and all of the sudden, everybody's well and healthy and somewhat rested."

When the Cubs have moved to six-man rotations in the recent past, pitchers like Lester, Lackey and Arrieta have balked at the decisions, preferring to remain on a five-day rotation as veteran creatures of habit.

But Lester seemed resigned to the thought of keeping Montgomery in the starting fold.

"I just work here," Lester said Saturday, echoing the exact sentiment Lackey stated after Friday's start. "I don't know. At the end of the day, they're gonna make decisions that they feel are necessary for this ballclub. No matter what you say, negative or positive, it doesn't really matter.

"Just tell me when I'm pitching next and I'll go out there and pitch. That's all I can do. In the grand scheme of things, everybody in that clubhouse just works here. If people above us make decisions then that's what you do. They're above us for a reason. They make educated decisions and they have reasons behind those decisions.

"You just pitch when you're told. That's kinda how I look at it."

Montgomery is no stranger to this purgatory type of situation. He's spent plenty of time — especially in a CUbs uniform — bouncing back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen.

Moving forward, regardless of role, he knows the preparation is still the same.

"It's getting late in the year, so just be smart, get the proper rest and really rebuild the legs and get everything ready for the stretch run," Montgomery said after Sunday's start. "I don't know what I'm gonna be doing the rest of the year, but just put a plan together and stay at that top performance level. That's gonna be the focus from here on out."

In another huge playoff moment, Wade Davis stays cool while everything else around Cubs goes crazy


In another huge playoff moment, Wade Davis stays cool while everything else around Cubs goes crazy

This became a three-ring circus on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, Cubs manager Joe Maddon screaming at the umpires, the video board showing the replay of Curtis Granderson’s swing and the crowd of 42,195 booing and chanting “BULLS#$!!”

The Los Angeles Dodgers are still in command of this National League Championship Series, but the Cubs won’t go quietly into the offseason, unleashing All-Star closer Wade Davis for the final two innings of a 3-2 thriller that kept them alive for at least another night.

The Cubs can worry about the daunting task of winning three more elimination games in the morning. Once Davis forced Cody Bellinger into the double-play groundball that left Justin Turner stranded in the on-deck circle and this one ended at 11:16 p.m., he pulled at his right sleeve and buttoned the top of his jersey while waiting for the Cubs to start the high-five line. “Go Cubs Go” blasted from the stadium’s sound  system and fireworks erupted beyond the center-field scoreboard and Davis acted as if nothing had happened.

To put the idea of beating the Dodgers three times in a row in perspective, the Cubs blasted three homers and got a classic big-game performance out of Jake Arrieta and still needed Davis for a heart-stopping, high-wire act.

Maddon already ruled out Davis for Thursday night’s Game 5 after the closer fired 48 pitches – or four more than he did during last week’s seven-out save that eliminated the Washington Nationals. But at least the Cubs will have those decisions to make instead of cleaning out their lockers.

“I don’t know,” Davis said. “We’ll definitely come in tomorrow and get some treatment and go out and play catch and see how I feel.”

It looks like Davis doesn’t feel anything on the mound. Davis didn’t react to Turner chucking his bat and yelling into the visiting dugout after crushing a 94-mph fastball for a home run to begin the eighth inning. Davis didn’t seem bothered by Yasiel Puig flipping his bat after drawing a walk. And Davis never lost his composure while Maddon got ejected for the second time in four NLCS games.

Maddon flipped out at home plate umpire Jim Wolf – and really the entire crew – when what was initially called a swinging strike three on Granderson got overturned and ruled a foul tip.

“Wade doesn’t care about any of that,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “That’s the right guy to have on the mound. With the mentality he has, he’s going to strike the guy out on the next pitch. Obviously with the replay, it’s not easy to keep your composure. But he’s just different. He’s a different animal.”

While the fans at Wrigley Field got loud and turned angry, Davis chatted with catcher Willson Contreras: “I was just trying to think of the next pitch I was going to throw if he ended up staying in the box.”

Davis got Granderson (0-for-4, four strikeouts) swinging at strike four, walked Yasmani Grandal and then blew away Chase Utley with a 95.1-mph fastball, needing 34 pitches to finish the eighth inning. Davis wasn’t finished, using a Kris Bryant bat to hit against Dodger lefty Tony Cingrani, fouling off five pitches before striking out looking at a 94.9-mph fastball.

“Yeah, I gave up there after a little bit,” Davis said with a look that sort of resembled a smile. “He was bringing it pretty good, and I hadn’t seen a baseball in a while coming in like that.”

If the Cubs are going to match the 2004 Boston Red Sox – the only other team to come back from an 0-3 deficit since the LCS format expanded to seven games in 1985 – they are going to need the offense to generate more runs, a great start from Jose Quintana on Thursday night and someone else to run out of the bullpen. Not that Davis is ruling himself out for Game 5.

“Go get some sleep and then come in tomorrow and start getting ready,” Davis said.

Jake Arrieta stars at Wrigley Field and doesn’t believe this is The End for Cubs: ‘Hopefully, it’s not a goodbye’

Jake Arrieta stars at Wrigley Field and doesn’t believe this is The End for Cubs: ‘Hopefully, it’s not a goodbye’

It’s not Jake Arrieta getting greedy and the Cubs being cheap when he holds up another jersey in a different city this winter, smiling for the cameras while super-agent Scott Boras watches the press conference unfold, marketing an ace to a new audience.

Even Arrieta admits that if he had Theo Epstein’s job, he would do the exact same thing, letting it play out until a 30-something pitcher hits the free-agent market. And Epstein wouldn’t have left the Boston Red Sox and taken over baseball operations at Clark and Addison if he didn’t believe in the need for change, to get outside the comfort zone and test yourself.

It’s just business, but this still felt very personal on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, Arrieta probably making his last start in a Cubs uniform while the defending World Series champs survived an elimination game against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Three straight trips to the National League Championship Series might have spoiled Cubs fans to the point where standing-room-only Game 4 tickets were selling for $60 on StubHub less than an hour before the 8:01 p.m. first pitch.

By 10:13 p.m., the crowd of 42,195 started booing when manager Joe Maddon popped out of the dugout in the seventh inning to take the ball from Arrieta after 111 pitches. It turned into a standing ovation as Arrieta walked off the mound and tipped his cap, his shaved head set against a mountain-man beard.

“Hopefully, it’s not a goodbye,” Arrieta said after a dramatic 3-2 win, surrounded by reporters at his locker. “It’s a thank you, obviously. I still intend to have another start in this ballpark.

“If that’s where it ends, I did my best and I left it all out there. But we’ve won four in a row plenty of times this year. And there’s no reason we can’t do it again.”

So many times, Arrieta has been worth the price of admission, must-see TV through two no-hitters and those two World Series games he won on the road last year against the Cleveland Indians. None of this would have been possible without the Cubs finding a winning lottery ticket in that Scott Feldman flip deal with the Baltimore Orioles on July 2, 2013.

“I took a little bit of extra time in between pitches,” Arrieta said, “just to look around, foul pole to foul pole, behind home plate, just to relish it and take it in. You got the fans on their feet, pulling on the same side of the rope. It breeds some added energy.

“I had that mindset of I’m going to do everything in my power to get it to tomorrow.”

Arrieta’s pitches dart and dive in directions that even he can’t always control, but he has guts, swing-and-miss stuff (nine strikeouts) and the ability to work through traffic. He gave up five walks, hit Chase Utley with a pitch and watched as Cody Bellinger hammered a ball off the video-board ribbon in right field for a third-inning homer.

But lefty reliever Brian Duensing backed Arrieta up with two outs and two runners on in the seventh inning, forcing Bellinger to lift a flyball into shallow left field, keeping it a 3-1 game and setting the stage for a two-inning Wade Davis save.

“Jake was amazing,” Davis said. “He was throwing Wiffle balls, it looked like. Guys were just swinging at balls that started in on the zone and finished a foot off the plate. He’s just got some amazing stuff.”

For perspective on how far this franchise has come, just look at the lineup from Arrieta’s first spot start as a Cub, the second game of a July 30, 2013 doubleheader against the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field:

David DeJesus, CF
Junior Lake, LF
Anthony Rizzo, 1B
Dioner Navarro, C
Luis Valbuena, 2B
Starlin Castro, SS
Cody Ransom, 3B
Cole Gillespie, RF

The Cubs actually sent Arrieta back to Triple-A Iowa for two more starts that summer, part of a mental/mechanical reset and the service-time calculus that would delay his free-agency clock by a year.

By 2015, Arrieta’s raw talent and natural confidence converged with a young, inexperienced team that caught fire in the second half, his Cy Young Award campaign fueling 97 wins and the momentum for chairman Tom Ricketts to authorize a spending spree on free agents that almost totaled $290 million.

"That was pretty special,” Maddon said. “I've never witnessed on the field that kind of consistent performance from a pitcher. It was other-worldly, right down to the wild-card game.

“My God, you pretty much knew if you scored one or two runs, you're going to win that night somehow. I don't know how this is going to look moving forward. But I know one thing, man, that one year of watching him play was different. It was a throwback to the ‘60s kind of pitching (I watched) as a kid.

“He's special – his work ethic and who he is and how he goes about his business. He's a very special young man.”

But Arrieta really isn’t in the mood to wonder if this is the end scene to this chapter of his life.

“There’s a little thought of that, yeah, because you never know,” Arrieta said. “But at the same time, now that the game’s over, it’s out of sight, out of mind. The thought process for me now is to be ready if I’m needed.”