If you had to pick just one Cubs starting pitcher to take the hill in a must-win game in October, who would you go with?
Jon Lester, the guy with a ridiculous resume of postseason success?
Kyle Hendricks, aka "The Professor" who is as cold as ice and been the Cubs' best pitcher over the last six weeks?
Cole Hamels, the wily veteran and former World Series MVP who has been rejuvenated since coming over in a midseason trade?
There's a legit case to be made for all three pitchers to start either a wild-card game (Cubs are crossing their fingers they don't need to worry about that) or Game 1 of the NLDS next week.
Hamels, however, looks to be falling back slightly in the race after giving up another homer Monday night — a long two-out blast to Francisco Cervelli in the first inning of the Cubs' 4-1 loss.
It was the sixth homer Hamels has allowed in his last four starts, but that was the only damage he was charged with Monday night as the only other run scored was unearned thanks to Kris Bryant's error.
"Shoot, givin' up home runs sucks," Hamels said. "I can't shy away from it — I do give 'em up. I have given 'em up in my career. I try to minimize the damage to mostly solos."
The 34-year-old Hamels still has a 2.60 ERA in a Cubs uniform and even chipped in with the bat, drilling a 437-foot homer to the centerfield bleachers for the Cubs' only run off Pittsburgh ace Jameson Taillon.
With one start remaining for each pitcher, it appears to be down to Hendricks or Lester for role of Game 1 starter.
After another gem Sunday against the White Sox, Hendricks now sports a 1.37 ERA and 0.79 WHIP over his last six starts. He has set a new career high in innings pitched (191) after tossing 16.1 frames over his last two starts and certainly looks to be peaking at just the right time for the Cubs.
Lester, meanwhile, got through a little midseason hiccup and has been fantastic over the last month-plus, as well. He boasts a 1.96 ERA and 1.23 WHIP over his last seven starts and his postseason resume speaks for itself — 9-7, 2.55 ERA, 1.03 WHIP in 148 innings.
Right now, my money's on Hendricks to start Game 1, as he did last season in Washington D.C. Lester would likely follow, with Hamels after that and Jose Quintana filling out the rotation (again, assuming the Cubs are playing the NLDS and not the wild-card game).
Of course, the Cubs have to get to the postseason first and though they're close to locking up a fourth straight playoff berth, they still have to fend off the hard-charging Brewers.
As we always do with this column, we'll line up how the Cubs' playoff roster and Game 1 lineup might look RIGHT NOW, in which case, the Cubs would be hosting the winner of the wild-card game. The Brewers are currently the first wild-card team, which means they will host the one-game playoff and as such, we'll project them to win thanks to homefield advantage.
If Milwaukee throws Jhoulys Chacin in the wild-card game, they would probably start lefty Wade Miley in Game 1 of the NLDS. Here's how the Cubs might line up against Miley:
1. Daniel Murphy - 2B
2. Ben Zobrist - RF
3. Javy Baez - SS
4. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
5. Kris Bryant - 3B
6. Albert Almora Jr. - CF
7. Willson Contreras - C
8. Kyle Hendricks - P
9. Kyle Schwarber - LF
It's tough to put Schwarber so low in the order when he's entered the final week of the regular season as the Cubs' hottest hitter, but those splits are real. He just hit his first homer of the season off a lefty Sunday and sports a .671 OPS vs. southpaws compared to an .884 OPS against righties.
Addison Russell would normally find his way in the lineup against a left-handed pitcher — moving Baez to third base and Bryant to left field — but he's on administrative leave and his status for the postseason is currently unknown.
David Bote could also get the start at third base and push Bryant to left against a southpaw this October. Bote hasn't done much at the plate since his ultimate grand slam in mid-August, but he still boasts a .903 OPS against lefties.
The Cubs could also opt to go with Jason Heyward in the outfield against lefties, playing right and pushing Zobrist to left. There are several options at Maddon's disposal and everything will likely change on a game-to-game basis, as per usual.
The real key to this lineup — especially against lefties — will be Bryant. He sat out Sunday to let his "fatigued" shoulder rest and was back in the lineup Monday, but he's been a shell of his former self since the middle of May when he first injured that left shoulder.
If he's right, he'll probably be hitting second for the Cubs in October. But since he's struggled to get going, Maddon has opted for Zobrist in the 2-hole behind Murphy of late.
This lineup would leave the Cubs' bench looking like this:
Tommy La Stella
With Russell's status unclear, there's a clear spot on the postseason roster for Happ, who we had outside the bubble last week in this column.
Assuming Russell is not available for October, the only other position player options would be Taylor Davis or Mike Freeman and the only way those guys would find their way on a postseason roster would be due to injury.
The Cubs have utilized 14 position players in the past and this bench of six guys would figure to provide Maddon with plenty of options, including Gore's gamebreaking speed.
As we've discussed earlier, Hendricks has had a fantastic week and will be riding a heck of a hot streak into October if he can have a solid final start.
Carl Edwards Jr.
Jorge De La Rosa
A lot has changed here over the last week, with Brandon Morrow ruled out for the season and Strop feeling good after his hamstring injury.
Maddon said Strop was feeling really good over the weekend and kind of bouncing around with excitement as he nears a return.
Could he still make an appearance in a game this week before the regular season ends?
"The difference is that he's able to throw," Maddon said. "Had he not been able to throw while he's going through all this, then it'd be a different story entirely. But he's been able to keep his arm moving, pretty much at 100 percent almost. So as his leg feels better, his arm's ready to go."
That would be a huge boost to this bullpen as the postseason draws near, depending on how effective Strop can be with what will be roughly two weeks off in between appearances by the time he does make it back.
The final bullpen spot sure looks like De La Rosa's to lose at the moment.
Dillon Maples was making a potential push as a darkhorse candidate but struggled against the White Sox and probably has pitched his way out of contention.
Maddon went to both Jaime Garcia and Alec Mills Monday night in what was a Cubs deficit, but still a close game and if the Cubs need an extra arm, those may be the two guys lobbying for the final spot.
If Strop suffers a setback or is unable to find his form enough to where he is not active for a postseason series, Mills may be the better bet. Garcia has far more experience, but it'd be hard to see the Cubs roll with four lefties in the bullpen and the right-handed Mills has impressed this season with the Cubs (2.87 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 19 Ks in 15.2 IP).
The other good news for this unit is they've actually been pretty well rested of late. After a really tough stretch, Maddon has not had to lean on his best relievers much over the last 10 days, so they should be rested and freseh for the final week of the regular season and into October, especially if the Cubs can lock up the division and get Monday through Wednesday off next week.