Strasburg? Scherzer? Kershaw? Cubs still have the pitching to be unstoppable in October again

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USA TODAY

Strasburg? Scherzer? Kershaw? Cubs still have the pitching to be unstoppable in October again

Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer got all the hype leading into this National League Division Series – and took no-hitters into the sixth and seventh innings in Games 1 and 3 – and yet the Washington Nationals are still in crisis mode.    

The rain that poured onto Wrigley Field on Tuesday night could have changed everything, with Strasburg theoretically available to start a postponed elimination game on Wednesday afternoon on normal rest.

The Strasburg shutdown rules now apparently have an “under the weather” section, with manager Dusty Baker revealing the $175 million ace/former No. 1 overall pick will be saved for an if-necessary Game 5 on Thursday night at Nationals Park.

Washington will stick with Tanner Roark (13-11, 4.67 ERA) as planned. Whatever is going on behind the scenes with the Nationals, the Cubs get some of the blame, because their playoff rotation has been that good, with Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta still waiting to throw the first pitch in Game 4 at 3:08 p.m.

“Listen, they have spectacular pitching, the Nationals do, but our guys have matched them inning for inning,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That’s why we won. Their pitching’s been great, so has ours. You have to pitch better than really good pitching – great pitching – to win. And we have. It comes down to that. Our starters have permitted us to be in this position.”

That’s one win away from a third straight trip to the NL Championship Series where the talk will be about Clayton Kershaw and if the Cubs can match up with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Every starter from the Opening Day rotation got injured at some point this season – remember Brett Anderson? – and the Cubs still headed into October with questions even after a 15-4 burst to close the regular season.

Kyle Hendricks doesn’t have the velocity or ego of a standard Game 1 starter. Jon Lester got shut down with left lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue in late August/early September. Jose Quintana didn’t have any playoff experience. Arrieta was recovering from a Grade 1 right hamstring strain.

[MORE: Respect this: How Anthony Rizzo owns October]     

Yet in a postseason environment where Chris Sale went 0-2 with an 8.38 ERA (one start) for the already-eliminated Boston Red Sox and Zack Greinke (7.27 ERA) didn’t win either of his two starts with the gone-fishin’ Arizona Diamondbacks, the Cubs have come up aces.

Combined, Hendricks, Lester and Quintana have allowed two runs (one earned) in 18.2 innings, limiting the Nationals to a .094 batting average and a .324 OPS. To put that in perspective, the Cubs have contained a Washington lineup that scored 800-plus runs to the point where its OPS is basically what Lester has done as an NL hitter (.318).         

“You win with pitching – pitching and defense,” Hendricks said. “If your starter can get you six, seven innings into a game, it takes a lot off your bullpen.

“In this day and age, we’re lucky to have the rotation we have and rely on that.”

Washington’s 1.96 rotation ERA ranks a distant second behind the Cubs (0.48) in a 10-team playoff field, another validation of the pitching infrastructure/game-planning system overseen by coaches Chris Bosio, Mike Borzello and Lester Strode and run prevention coordinator Tommy Hottovy.

“It’s really been interesting to watch all the runs being scored against some really good pitching,” Maddon said. “I don’t know the reason. There’s no good reason. But I do know how good the National pitching staff is versus our hitters. And then Washington has a very good offensive team, and our pitchers have done a nice job.

“It’s been the classic 60s-70s kind of series, as opposed to everybody’s looking for the offense these days.”

This is the seventh playoff round of the Maddon Era in Wrigleyville and the Cubs are coming off a championship run where they heard all about the legend of Madison Bumgarner and the even-year San Francisco Giants, Kershaw wanting to rewrite his legacy in October and The Klubot, Corey Kluber, waiting to start three World Series games for the Cleveland Indians.  

This rotation isn’t unbeatable – and the picture looks different if Arrieta suddenly hops off the mound in pain – but the Cubs are unflappable and that could make them unstoppable.   

“Each individual handles it differently, and you’ve got to figure out what works for you,” Lester said. “I just know from our clubhouse and being around these guys the last three years, you could see the nervousness and the anxiety in 2015. Last year was more kind of like: ‘We’re not going to let that happen again’ and more of a calmness in the clubhouse.

“The more you play in these situations, the more you can kind of separate all the other stuff that goes along with it, and just go and worry about what your job is that day.”

In the Wednesday schedule released to the media on Tuesday night, Strasburg was listed as TBD in the Wrigley Field interview room.

Jose Quintana has a plan to combat excitement surrounding postseason debut

Jose Quintana has a plan to combat excitement surrounding postseason debut

One of baseball’s best kept secrets is about to step into the October spotlight for the very first time and everyone wonders how he’ll handle the moment.

Even though Jose Quintana has never pitched in the postseason, he said the key to his debut on Monday in Game 3 of the National League Division Series will be to keep things simple.

Prior to Sunday afternoon’s brunch-out at Wrigley Field, Quintana said he spent the previous two games soaking up the playoff atmosphere and taking notes from veteran teammates. The Cubs’ key midseason acquisition expects to be excitable when he faces Max Scherzer and the Washington Nationals in front of a sellout crowd at Wrigley Field with the series tied 1-1. But Quintana also believes that all that matters is if hit his spots and stays out of the middle of the zone.

“I feel really good,” Quintana said. “I’m so excited. I try to be like, you know, cool, but be present and focus on my game.

“Like I say, I don’t want to change nothing. Just throw my ball well and just focus, pitch by pitch. At this time, a short series, it’s really important, every pitch.”

Quintana’s only other opportunity to reach the postseason in five seasons was with the 2012 White Sox, whose position players were beat up and its rotation simply ran out of gas in September. Even though this type of start is exactly why the Cubs made a blockbuster to acquire him, shipping elite hitting prospect Eloy Jimenez and hard-throwing righty Dylan Cease to the White Sox in July, it’s only natural to wonder how Quintana will fare. The 2017 postseason has been largely unkind to first-time starting pitchers so far as Arizona’s Robbie Ray and Taijuan Walker, Boston’s Chris Sale and Colorado’s Jon Gray were all hit hard in their October debuts.

But the left-hander has come close to replicating a similar atmosphere when he pitched for Colombia in the World Baseball Classic against Team USA on March 11, retiring the first 17 hitters he faced.  

Beyond that, Quintana pitched extremely well down the stretch for the Cubs during their drive to the NL Central title. Manager Joe Maddon cited Quintana’s brilliant Sept. 24 turn at Milwaukee when he struck out 10 during a three-hit shutout as evidence he’s ready. Quintana went 3-0 with a 2.82 ERA and 45 strikeouts with only four walks in 38 1/3 innings over his final six starts.

“I don’t want to keep going back in time, but that four-game series up there was really pertinent,” Maddon said. “He had a great look. I can only tell you --- we’re all into reading people’s faces and their vibe and their energy and all that stuff. And he had it. He has it. My only concern is that he’s over-amped a little bit too much, too soon tomorrow afternoon. But he’s wanted to be this guy.”

Similar to Sale, Quintana has always desired this moment. Reaching the postseason has been his goal every season from the first time he plays catch in spring training to his first bullpen to the first start. Quintana’s laser focus in between starts always made him an easy example for White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper to use as a model for his other pitchers to follow. It also contributed to the pinpoint command that has allowed him to excel as a big leaguer.

[MORE: 6 main NLDS takeaways heading into Cubs-Nationals Game 3

His former catch partner with the White Sox, pitcher Carlos Rodon, said that even during a simple warmup drill, Quintana always tried to hit an invisible circle between his legs at knee-high level.

That “focused practice,” as Cooper calls it, has always helped Quintana stay dialed in during trying moments. It’ll likely be critical once again when Quintana takes the hill on Monday against a team he’s never faced before.

“The approach never changes,” Quintana said. “I saw that with (Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester) and watching around the field in Washington was great. It’s exciting.

“John Lackey told me the last couple days, try to do your job. Just hit your spots and never change. The game’s the same and you’re going to feel the energy around you, so it’s really exciting. I’ve never seen games like this, and it’s really fun.” 

How Rick Hahn and the White Sox could end up the biggest difference-makers in the MLB playoffs

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USA TODAY

How Rick Hahn and the White Sox could end up the biggest difference-makers in the MLB playoffs

Without the White Sox, this year's MLB postseason would look a lot different.

Already, just one game in, former White Sox players are starring, and with all the talent traded away from the South Side in the past year, it's not unreasonable to suggest that one of the biggest difference-makers in the 2017 playoffs could be Rick Hahn.

Tuesday night's AL wild card game was a good one, the New York Yankees topping the Minnesota Twins by an 8-4 score to advance to the ALDS. And while the Yankees' trio of homers — smacked by Aaron Judge, Didi Gregorius and Brett Gardner — had nothing to do with the White Sox, former South Side relief pitchers David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle combined to throw 5.2 innings of scoreless ball. Those innings were crucial after Yankees starting pitcher Luis Severino was lifted after recording just one out in the first inning. Severino coughed up three first-inning runs and earned a quick hook in the winner-take-all game. Fortunately for the Yankees, the offense responded with three runs of its own in the bottom of the first and the bullpen stopped the bleeding. Robertson and Kahnle did the majority of that work.

That deadline deal involving the White Sox and Yankees, which also included third baseman Todd Frazier, was tremendously beneficial for both sides as the two franchises are at vastly different places when it comes to competing for a championship. The Yankees made that deal for exactly this kind of scenario, and without it, maybe the Twins would have advanced on Tuesday night.

But the AL wild card game won't be the only place the White Sox recent flurry of deals will be felt this postseason. Obviously the Yankees now move on to face off against the Cleveland Indians, and Robertson, Kahnle and Frazier figure to all continue to play big roles for the Bronx Bombers. But look elsewhere on the bracket, too. The two guys who just a year ago topped the White Sox rotation are now pitching in the playoffs with new teams.

Chris Sale will get the ball in Game 1 of the ALDS between his Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros. Sale, who struck out 308 hitters this season and is a candidate to win the AL Cy Young, could have a monumental impact on the playoffs for as long as the Red Sox stay alive. He's the kind of top-of-the-line starting pitcher who the Red Sox could throw twice in a best-of-five series and three times, perhaps, in a best-of-seven series. As we've seen in recent years with pitchers like Madison Bumgarner, Corey Kluber and Cole Hamels and further back with guys like Josh Beckett, one starting pitcher can dominate a postseason. Is Sale that guy this year? That would be some instant gratification for the Red Sox after the offseason trade that sent Sale to Boston and brought back Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech to the White Sox.

Jose Quintana, meanwhile, might not be the ace of the Cubs' starting staff, but he'll make his first career postseason start in Game 3 of the NLDS against the Washington Nationals. Quintana was one of the Cubs' most reliable starting pitchers down the stretch, posting a 2.52 ERA in five September starts, and he figures to make a big difference every time he grabs the ball. Obviously, the longer the Cubs remain in the playoffs, the greater an impact he will make.

It's well known the prospects that Hahn acquired in the deals that sent these impact guys out of town, and that's gone a long way toward building what he hopes is a championship team of the future. Don't be surprised, though, if one of these deals ends up making a big difference on whatever team is the championship squad of the present.

Just for fun, here are all the former White Sox (and some former White Sox farmhands) on the 40-man rosters of this year's playoff teams:

— Cleveland Indians: Austin Jackson

— Houston Astros: Tyler Clippard, Chris Devenski, Francisco Liriano

— Boston Red Sox: Chris Sale, Addison Reed, Chris Young

— New York Yankees: Tommy Kahnle, David Robertson, Todd Frazier

— Minnesota Twins: Eduardo Escobar

— Los Angeles Dodgers: Brandon McCarthy, Trayce Thompson

— Washington Nationals: Matt Albers, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson, Alejandro De Aza, Adam Eaton

— Chicago Cubs: Jose Quintana, Alex Avila