WASHINGTON – The Cubs and Washington Nationals spent years building toward this moment, making shrewd draft picks, engineering big trades and signing free-agent stars, but now it could all hinge on two hamstrings.
The Cubs at least know that their lineup won’t face Max Scherzer twice in this best-of-five National League Division Series, with Washington starting lefty Gio Gonzalez in Saturday’s Game 2 at Nationals Park and pushing their two-time Cy Young Award winner back to Monday’s Game 3 at Wrigley Field.
Assuming the “tweak” in Scherzer’s right leg doesn’t completely shackle his violent delivery and drain the power from his push-off leg and turn Washington’s dream season into a nightmare.
Jake Arrieta had a 26-day head start on Scherzer when he suffered a Grade 1 hamstring strain on Labor Day and the Cubs still felt the best move would be holding their Cy Young Award winner back for an if-necessary Game 4 next week.
“Honestly, he’s feeling really good,” manager Joe Maddon said Friday. “Everything’s coming up nicely, reports from the doctor, reports from Jake, the training staff. He’s ready for that game. There’s no doubt about that. Something would have to happen between now and then, because as of right now, he feels very good.
“Slow-playing that, regarding getting him back out, might be beneficial to us. We’ll see how it all plays out. But he’s feeling very good right now.”
That uncertainty around Arrieta and the left-handed thump in Washington’s lineup shaped this playoff roster. The Cubs went with 11 pitchers, making veteran starter John Lackey available in case of emergency in a Big Boy Game.
Struggling lefty reliever Justin Wilson bumped Hector Rondon – who never seemed to fully regain Maddon’s trust after last year’s playoffs – because of his status as a trade-deadline addition and numbers against Mr. October Daniel Murphy (0-for-6 with three strikeouts and a walk).
This alignment also allows Maddon to used lefty swingman Mike Montgomery for the best matchups and high-leverage moments.
“I do believe he’s well,” Maddon said of Arrieta. “But if something were to go awry, then you have John, who’s totally stretched out. That’s even like a backup-backup kind of a plan. But it’s really based on the handed-ness of the Nationals and the fact that we like Wilson possibly in different situations. And we really like Montgomery in a lot of situations.
“This is our best guess right now.”