Cubs officially unveil NLDS rotation

Cubs officially unveil NLDS rotation

The wait is over. 

The Cubs officially announced their rotation for the National League Division Series with no surprises: Jon Lester getting Game 1, Kyle Hendricks going Game 2 at home and then Jake Arrieta followed by John Lackey on the road.

With two weeks between the Cubs' last truly meaningful game and the NLDS opener at Wrigley Field, speculation was abound on the Cubs' rotation and playoff roster. 

But the decision to line the starters up this way has really been settled for a while now.

It also helps that Hendricks (2.13) and Lester (2.44) notched the two best ERAs in the National League.

"A lot of it has just been based on recent productivity," Joe Maddon said in the Cubs dugout before the team took part in a simulated game Tuesday. "The fact that Jon's just nailed it, Kyle's nailed it. But they've also been very good at home. 

"Where Jake's also been good on the road and I think John Lackey doesn't care where he pitches. It kinda morphed into that. Over the last couple weeks, we've been talking about it. But those two guys have been exceptional [at Wrigley] and it's not easy to pitch well on the road and Jake's done a nice job."

In 15 appearances (14 starts) at home, Hendricks has a sparkling 1.32 ERA and 0.86 WHIP with a ridiculous 89:14 strikeout to walk ratio in 95.1 innings. On the road, he sports a 2.95 ERA and 1.099 WHIP.

Lester's splits are similar: 1.74 ERA, 0.89 WHIP at Wrigley and a 3.17 ERA, 1.15 WHIP on the road. 

Meanwhile, Arrieta has a 3.59 ERA away from Wrigley Field, but has a lower WHIP (1.04 on the road, 1.12 in Chicago) and finds a way to win away from home with an 11-3 record.

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Maddon also pointed to Lester's vast postseason experience that includes a 2.85 ERA over six different playoff runs and two World Series titles as part of the reasoning for why he got the ball to kick off the Cubs' road to the Fall Classic.

Arrieta, Lester and Hendricks all didn't have their best starts to close out the regular season, but with the four days off between Sunday's game in Cincinnati and Friday's NLDS opener, Maddon is only worried about the four starters staying healthy and not about trying to fine-tune anything.

"It's just a function of the time of the year, the fact that we are going into this situation in both a good and an awkward way at the same time, meaning that we clinched so early," Maddon said. 

"It's definitely a different feeling about those [regular season] games internally. Very highly competitive people. All this stuff matters. So for me right now, it's all about health. They'll be fine when they pitch their actual playoff games."

Maddon also confirmed the Cubs have not yet made official decisions regarding the status of Jason Hammel or Jorge Soler for the NLDS. 

Hammel is dealing with a sore elbow and missed his final regular season start. However, he pitched in Tuesday's simulated game and the Cubs didn't completely rule out his status on the NLDS 25-man roster.

Soler's troublesome right side issue limited him to just six at-bats over the season's final two weeks, but he took part in Tuesday's simulated game and the Cubs just want to ensure he's healthy by Friday.

"We're just gonna get him hitting right now," Maddon said. "He looked good the other day. Definitely a part of the conversation to make this roster as long as he's well."

Why what Mike Montgomery did against LA could go a long way toward keeping him in the Cubs' rotation

USA Today

Why what Mike Montgomery did against LA could go a long way toward keeping him in the Cubs' rotation

Joe Maddon needed Mike Montgomery to get through at least six innings given the circumstances presenting the Cubs' manager before Game 2 of Tuesday’s day-night doubleheader against the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

Not only were the Cubs short a man in the bullpen (thanks to Brandon Morrow’s pants-related back injury), but Maddon had to use four relievers — including Pedro Strop for two innings — after Tyler Chatwood managed only five innings in Game 1 earlier in the afternoon. 

So when Montgomery — who had only thrown over 100 pitches once in the last two and a half seasons before Tuesday — saw his pitch count sit at 40 after two innings, and then 63 after three, he knew he needed to regroup to avoid creating a mess for the Cubs’ bullpen. 

What followed was a start that, statistically, wasn’t the most impressive of the five Montgomery’s made since re-joining the Cubs’ rotation earlier this year. But it was an important start in that the 28-year-old left-hander didn’t have his best stuff, yet didn’t give in to a good Dodgers lineup. And holding that bunch to one run over six innings was exactly what the Cubs needed in what turned out to be a 2-1 extra-inning win. 

“Especially when you don’t have have your best stuff, you always gotta — that’s when you really learn how to pitch,” Montgomery said. 

It’s also the kind of start that could be a major point in Montgomery’s favor when Maddon is presented with a decision to make on his starting rotation whenever Yu Darvish comes off the disabled list. Knowing that Montgomery can grind his way through six innings when his team needs it the most without his best stuff only can add to the confidence the Cubs have in him. 

Montgomery didn’t have his best stuff on Tuesday, issuing more walks (four) than he had in his previous four starts (three). He threw 48 pitches between the second and third innings, and only 25 of those pitches were strikes. Of the nine times the Dodgers reached base against Montgomery, six were the result of fastballs either leading to a walk or a hit. 

Even though the Dodgers were able to bother Montgomery a bit on his fastball, Maddon said that’s the pitch of his that’s impressed him the most over the last few weeks. 

“He never got rushed,” Maddon said. “In the past he would seem to get rushed when things weren’t going well, when he spot-started. Overall, fastball command is better — even though he was off a little bit tonight, the fastball command still exceeds what I’ve seen in the past couple of years on a more consistent basis. The changeup, really, good pitch. He got out of some jams but I think the fact that he knows where his fastball is going now is the difference-maker for him.”

Darvish will throw a simulated game on Wednesday after throwing two bullpen sessions last week. Maddon still doesn’t have a timetable for the $126 million right-hander’s return, and said he’s not entertaining what to do with his rotation until Darvish comes off the disabled list. But Maddon did mention Montgomery’s relative lack of an innings load — the most he’s thrown in a season in 130 2/3, which he did in 2017 — as a reason to perhaps not rush him into a permanent starting role the rest of the season. Going to a six-man rotation is a possibility, too, Maddon said. 

But the over-arching point is this: Montgomery will remain in the Cubs’ rotation as long as he keeps earning it. That can be the product of strong outings in which he has good stuff, or games like Tuesday in which he shows the Cubs the kind of resiliency most starters need to get through a full season. 

“I pitch well, good things happen,” Montgomery said. “I’ve always thought that. Opportunities, you just gotta make the most of them.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 28th + 29th homers in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 28th + 29th homers in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

For the second time in 1998, Sosa went back-to-back games with multiple home runs. After going yard twice on June 19 of that season, Slammin' Sammy again sent two balls into the bleachers on June 20.

He singlehandedly beat the Phillies that night, driving in 5 runs in a 9-4 Cubs victory.

But that wasn't the most impressive feat of the day from Sosa. His second homer was actually measured at a whopping 500 feet! It was the longest of the season, but not the longest of his career. On June 24, 2003, Sosa hit a homer at Wrigley measured at 511 feet.

The back-to-back big games raised Sosa's season OPS to 1.083 with a ridiculous .685 slugging percentage. He began June 1998 with a .608 slugging percentage.

Fun fact: Kerry Wood struck out 11 batters in 7.1 innings on June 20, 1998 to pick up his 7th big-league victory. As Wood marched to the National League Rookie of the Year that season, he finished with a 13-6 record and 233 strikeouts in only 166.2 innings for a career-high 12.6 K/9 rate.