Johnny Cueto telling reporters this week that his strained left groin felt like a crab grabbing and biting him became another surreal moment for the San Francisco Giants during their second-half spiral. It could also be interpreted as yet another sign that everything could be aligning for the Cubs this season.
Cueto getting an MRI and potentially missing his next start could be extremely damaging for the even-year Giants. Because lining up a $130 million pitcher who earned a World Series ring with the Kansas City Royals last year would give San Francisco a sense of momentum heading into Oct. 7 at Wrigley Field. But that’s only if the Giants can keep pace in the National League wild-card race and ride Madison Bumgarner into the next playoff round.
The Giants, New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals all woke up on Thursday morning with 80-72 records in this battle of attrition. The Mets look nothing like the team that dominated the Cubs during last year’s NL Championship Series, with Matt Harvey recovering from season-ending surgery (thoracic outlet syndrome), Jacob deGrom undergoing another procedure to fix nerve damage in his right elbow and Steven Matz getting scratched from Friday night’s comeback start after a setback with the left shoulder tightness that has sidelined him since mid-August.
By Friday afternoon, the magic number to clinch the NL’s No. 1 seed will be two when the Cardinals invade Wrigleyville for a three-game series that could be an October sneak preview for the Cubs, a team with five pitchers who have made at least 28 starts this season. That group includes two Cy Young frontrunners (Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks), last year’s award winner (Jake Arrieta) and a Texas cowboy who’s won two clinching games in the World Series (John Lackey).
“We feel good about where we’re at going into the second season,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said. “The home-field advantage after winning the division is huge for us. We want teams to have to come through our home. We want to be a very difficult team for other teams to come in here and play. Our record has proven that. And our health is imperative going forward.
“We have to have all of our horses lined up for the playoffs, including the bullpen with (Pedro) Strop and (Hector) Rondon. Knowing that we have those guys going into the playoffs – it’s special. I think it’s an advantage. And we have to take advantage of it.”
Beyond the maximum efforts those wild-card contenders will have to expend, the Washington Nationals don’t know when – or if – Stephen Strasburg’s right elbow will allow him to return this season or how he will live up to the seven-year, $175 million extension he signed in May.
The Los Angeles Dodgers are hoping the herniated disc in Clayton Kershaw’s back doesn’t flare up again. And Dave Roberts had enough concerns about Rich Hill’s fragile nature that the manager pulled the ex-Cub after seven perfect innings against the Miami Marlins on Sept. 10, fearing blisters on his left hand.
“I’ve been aware,” David Ross said. “I saw Strasburg go down and then the Mets’ (situation). But Bartolo Colon can deal, you know what I mean?”
Ross had just watched Joey Votto drill a ball off Lester’s right wrist during Tuesday’s 6-1 win over the Cincinnati Reds. Near the end of his farewell tour, Lester’s personal catcher stood at his locker inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse and joked about his initial reaction: “Please don’t be hurt…there goes my job.”
“Anybody can be really good on a certain night,” said Ross, who won a World Series ring with the 2013 Boston Red Sox team that featured Lester and Lackey. “Especially in that kind of atmosphere, guys tend to take their game to another level.
“We’re going to have a team that’s going to roll in here and try to beat us. (They’ll) try to do the same thing we’re trying to do – get to the World Series and (reach) the ultimate goal.
“I just told ‘Rizz’ (Anthony Rizzo) in the shower, it’s the whole Ric Flair (attitude): To be the best, you got to beat the best. And I dropped a big ‘Woo!’ on him in the shower.”
[SHOP CUBS: Get your NL Central champions gear right here]
The means Arrieta recapturing the feel and swagger that made him the hottest pitcher on the planet last year. This season’s glittering overall numbers (17-7, 2.96 ERA) haven’t completely covered up some of the command issues and inconsistent performances, which create another layer of meaning to Friday’s start against the Cardinals.
“Our pitchers will match up with anyone,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “At the end of the day, they got to make pitches, regardless. If you don’t make pitches, you won’t match up with anybody.
“Hopefully, we get Jake back on track, too, because I think it’s in there. It’s just maybe a little tweak here and there. But I believe he needs just one good outing to get the confidence back.”
The Cubs also don’t have any definitive answers for why their starters haven’t broken down, knowing there is an element of luck involved and that one pitch could change their entire playoff forecast.
“Most of these guys have had a good history,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I think that’s the primary reason why (they’ve stayed healthy). You talk about some of these Dodger guys – they have had a history of not being well – so I think that’s just a history lesson more than anything. I’m certain they don’t do anything different than we do. I just think it’s up to the individual, the player.”
Especially in October, when the Nationals will have their own $210 million ace with Cy Young Award credentials (Max Scherzer) on the mound and Kershaw will be trying to rewrite his postseason legacy (2-6, 4.59 ERA) and the wild-card survivor won’t be feeling any suffocating pressure.
“That’s how it goes,” Ross said. “You’re going to have to play good baseball. You don’t get to the endgame without going through some really tough competition.”