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."