CINCINNATI – Joe Maddon couldn’t maintain a poker face and hide his smirk when asked if there’s a very good chance that this will be the Game 1 playoff lineup for the Cubs.
“There’s a shot,” Maddon said Saturday afternoon at Great American Ball Park as reporters started laughing. “I’m not a cloak-and-dagger guy.”
Reading the manager’s body language, how the Cubs aligned against the Cincinnati Reds will likely be the group that runs out to thunderous cheers on Oct. 7 at Wrigley Field and faces the National League’s wild-card winner:
1. Dexter Fowler, CF
2. Kris Bryant, LF
3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B
4. Ben Zobrist, 2B
5. Addison Russell, SS
6. Jason Heyward, RF
7. Javier Baez, 3B
8. David Ross, C
9. Jon Lester, P
• The NL playoff picture is coming into focus, with the New York Mets clinching a wild-card spot and home-field advantage while the San Francisco Giants stayed one game ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals. Beat the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday at AT&T Park and the even-year Giants are in the playoffs. San Francisco’s worst-case scenario is a Game 163 on Monday at Busch Stadium.
The Cubs upgraded their lineup after getting exposed during the NL Championship Series last October, investing more than $250 million in Fowler, Zobrist and Heyward and seeing tremendous year-over-year improvements from young All-Stars like Bryant, Rizzo and Russell.
If the Cubs meet the Mets again, they won’t have to face Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom or Steven Matz, who’ve all undergone season-ending surgeries, perhaps paying the price for last year’s NL pennant.
“It’s an entirely different look for them right now,” Maddon said. “They’re using a lot of young guys right now that are really (working) for them. But any team that’s going to make it in there – the pitching’s going to be pretty good, regardless.
“They were extremely, incredibly hot when we saw them. Their command last year – with the weather conditions on top of it – I was baffled by it, by how well that they threw and what kind of command that they had in really extreme conditions in New York. So you got to give a lot of credit.”
• Jorge Soler didn’t look comfortable hitting in ice-cold weather – who does? – but he’s a physical presence who made his mark in last year’s playoffs. Two MRIs on his right side have come back clean, yet he’s only felt good enough to have four at-bats within the last two weeks.
Soler took batting practice before Saturday’s 7-4 loss to the Reds and could make an appearance in Game 162. All this makes him an X-factor after he crushed St. Louis pitching last October, setting a major-league record by getting on base in his first nine career postseason plate appearances.
“The lineup presents differently with him in it,” Maddon said. “He’s definitely a force. He’s absolutely an offensive force. You play him for seven innings, grab a lead and get him out on defense. That’s the optimal situation.”