ST. LOUIS – At this point, Jake Arrieta or Jon Lester sounds more like a conversation starter for newspapers, talk shows and Twitter than a real debate inside the Cubs organization.
All signs are pointing toward the Cubs starting Jake Arrieta in the National League’s wild-card game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have already adjusted their rotation with stud right-hander Gerrit Cole (16-8, 2.54 ERA) and the playoffs in mind.
“I don’t really care,” Lester said after Wednesday’s 4-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. “He’s the best pitcher on this team right now. He’s probably the best pitcher in the league right now.
“Listen, everybody has an ego and everybody wants to be that guy. But when it comes down to it, if he gives us the best chance to win that one-game playoff, I’ll be on the top step cheering my butt off for him to do well.
“There’s no competition in here. The competition is on the field. We’re trying to win a World Series, ultimately.
“I don’t make those decisions. You come tell me when you’re going to give me the ball and I’ll run out there and try my damnedest to give you the best start I can.
“I could give two flying you-know-whats (about) who gets picked.”
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Unless the Cardinals completely collapse, it looks like two Central teams with 90-plus wins will have a six-month season come down to a one-game playoff on Oct. 7.
That no-hitter at Dodger Stadium on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” enhanced his reputation nationally and reinforced what the Cubs already understood: Arrieta (18-6, 2.03 ERA) is an intimidating presence, a student of the game, a physical specimen and one of the most dominating pitchers in the majors. Period.
“Yes, he would be able to pitch in the wild card,” manager Joe Maddon said. “But, again, our goal is not just to play in the wild-card game.”
Arrieta will face the Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday night at Citizens Bank Park before getting into playoff mode. The Cubs have positioned Arrieta for the Pirates (Sept. 15 doubleheader at PNC Park), Cardinals (Sept. 20 at Wrigley Field) and Pirates again (Sept. 25-27 home weekend).
The Cubs woke up on Wednesday morning with a nine-game lead over the San Francisco Giants for the second wild card. The Washington Nationals had fallen to 9.5 games back. The playoff odds are overwhelming.
The Cubs shouldn’t be in the position where they would have to push Arrieta and Lester hard in late September or early October just to get into the tournament.
“We’re very much aware of that, but the goal is still to catch the Cardinals,” Maddon said. “I just don’t want our guys to lose track or thoughts of trying to catch the Cardinals. That’s our best way to play outstanding baseball for the rest of the month leading into the playoffs.
“Try to catch the Pirates. Catch them and then you try to catch the next group. I still want us to approach every day that way.”
Lester has pretty much been what the Cubs expected when they signed him to a six-year, $155 million megadeal: A very good pitcher (9-10, 3.50 ERA) with a professional attitude and the instant credibility that comes from winning two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox.
Lester has a 2.57 ERA in 84 career postseason innings. But in a win-or-else situation, that playoff experience is somewhat diminished by Lester’s issues with throwing over to first base and controlling the running game.
The Kansas City Royals exposed that during last year’s American League wild-card game, when Lester worked as a hired gun for the Oakland A’s. The Royals ran all the way to Game 7 of the World Series before losing to the Giants.
“That would have to be a consideration under those circumstances,” Maddon said. “Some of that could depend on who you may play and the kind of game they could bring to you.
“Just being honest, I think that would be the primary thing to look at: Who is that team and what kind of game are they capable of playing? (The Pirates) can run a little bit.”
This is a first-world problem for a franchise that has finished in fifth place for five years in a row, a time when 40 percent of the rotation usually signaled a fire sale at the trade deadline.
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“We have a lot of confidence in all our guys,” said David Ross, who caught Lester when the Red Sox surged toward a World Series title in 2013.
“You can’t deny what Jake Arrieta’s been doing this year. He should be in the Cy Young race with some of those guys out in L.A. (Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw). He’s even an MVP candidate for our team.
“Either way, no matter who pitches that game, I think we got a really good chance. We believe in ourselves.”