Cubs

How Cubs rotation could be aligning for World Series run against weakened National League contenders

How Cubs rotation could be aligning for World Series run against weakened National League contenders

Johnny Cueto telling reporters this week that his strained left groin felt like a crab grabbing and biting him became another surreal moment for the San Francisco Giants during their second-half spiral. It could also be interpreted as yet another sign that everything could be aligning for the Cubs this season.

Cueto getting an MRI and potentially missing his next start could be extremely damaging for the even-year Giants. Because lining up a $130 million pitcher who earned a World Series ring with the Kansas City Royals last year would give San Francisco a sense of momentum heading into Oct. 7 at Wrigley Field. But that’s only if the Giants can keep pace in the National League wild-card race and ride Madison Bumgarner into the next playoff round. 

The Giants, New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals all woke up on Thursday morning with 80-72 records in this battle of attrition. The Mets look nothing like the team that dominated the Cubs during last year’s NL Championship Series, with Matt Harvey recovering from season-ending surgery (thoracic outlet syndrome), Jacob deGrom undergoing another procedure to fix nerve damage in his right elbow and Steven Matz getting scratched from Friday night’s comeback start after a setback with the left shoulder tightness that has sidelined him since mid-August.

By Friday afternoon, the magic number to clinch the NL’s No. 1 seed will be two when the Cardinals invade Wrigleyville for a three-game series that could be an October sneak preview for the Cubs, a team with five pitchers who have made at least 28 starts this season. That group includes two Cy Young frontrunners (Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks), last year’s award winner (Jake Arrieta) and a Texas cowboy who’s won two clinching games in the World Series (John Lackey).

“We feel good about where we’re at going into the second season,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said. “The home-field advantage after winning the division is huge for us. We want teams to have to come through our home. We want to be a very difficult team for other teams to come in here and play. Our record has proven that. And our health is imperative going forward.

“We have to have all of our horses lined up for the playoffs, including the bullpen with (Pedro) Strop and (Hector) Rondon. Knowing that we have those guys going into the playoffs – it’s special. I think it’s an advantage. And we have to take advantage of it.”

[MORE: How rotation strength/health tells the story of Cubs season so far]

Beyond the maximum efforts those wild-card contenders will have to expend, the Washington Nationals don’t know when – or if – Stephen Strasburg’s right elbow will allow him to return this season or how he will live up to the seven-year, $175 million extension he signed in May.

The Los Angeles Dodgers are hoping the herniated disc in Clayton Kershaw’s back doesn’t flare up again. And Dave Roberts had enough concerns about Rich Hill’s fragile nature that the manager pulled the ex-Cub after seven perfect innings against the Miami Marlins on Sept. 10, fearing blisters on his left hand.

“I’ve been aware,” David Ross said. “I saw Strasburg go down and then the Mets’ (situation). But Bartolo Colon can deal, you know what I mean?”

Ross had just watched Joey Votto drill a ball off Lester’s right wrist during Tuesday’s 6-1 win over the Cincinnati Reds. Near the end of his farewell tour, Lester’s personal catcher stood at his locker inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse and joked about his initial reaction: “Please don’t be hurt…there goes my job.”

“Anybody can be really good on a certain night,” said Ross, who won a World Series ring with the 2013 Boston Red Sox team that featured Lester and Lackey. “Especially in that kind of atmosphere, guys tend to take their game to another level.

“We’re going to have a team that’s going to roll in here and try to beat us. (They’ll) try to do the same thing we’re trying to do – get to the World Series and (reach) the ultimate goal.

“I just told ‘Rizz’ (Anthony Rizzo) in the shower, it’s the whole Ric Flair (attitude): To be the best, you got to beat the best. And I dropped a big ‘Woo!’ on him in the shower.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your NL Central champions gear right here]

The means Arrieta recapturing the feel and swagger that made him the hottest pitcher on the planet last year. This season’s glittering overall numbers (17-7, 2.96 ERA) haven’t completely covered up some of the command issues and inconsistent performances, which create another layer of meaning to Friday’s start against the Cardinals.

“Our pitchers will match up with anyone,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “At the end of the day, they got to make pitches, regardless. If you don’t make pitches, you won’t match up with anybody.

“Hopefully, we get Jake back on track, too, because I think it’s in there. It’s just maybe a little tweak here and there. But I believe he needs just one good outing to get the confidence back.”

The Cubs also don’t have any definitive answers for why their starters haven’t broken down, knowing there is an element of luck involved and that one pitch could change their entire playoff forecast.

“Most of these guys have had a good history,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I think that’s the primary reason why (they’ve stayed healthy). You talk about some of these Dodger guys – they have had a history of not being well – so I think that’s just a history lesson more than anything. I’m certain they don’t do anything different than we do. I just think it’s up to the individual, the player.”

Especially in October, when the Nationals will have their own $210 million ace with Cy Young Award credentials (Max Scherzer) on the mound and Kershaw will be trying to rewrite his postseason legacy (2-6, 4.59 ERA) and the wild-card survivor won’t be feeling any suffocating pressure.

“That’s how it goes,” Ross said. “You’re going to have to play good baseball. You don’t get to the endgame without going through some really tough competition.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: What would it take for the Cubs to trade Kris Bryant?

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: What would it take for the Cubs to trade Kris Bryant?

Luke Stuckmeyer, David Kaplan and Tony Andracki break down the Kris Bryant trade rumors.

01:00 - How much truth is there to the "Will Kris Bryant be traded" story?

04:25 - Is there any package a team could offer that would give the Cubs what they value Kris Bryant at?

05:35 - Who is the most untouchable player on the Cubs roster?

08:55 - Will Kris Bryant be in Chicago long enough to wear a Cubs hat if he makes it to Cooperstown?

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12:00 - Is Nolan Aranado a match in a possible trade for Bryant

16:00 - If MVP is Bryant's ceiling, what is his floor?

17:00 - Any players who had a shoulder issue like Bryant had who never bounced back?

19:00 - Would a Noah Syndergard for Kris Bryant trade make sense?

20:20 - Could Josh Donaldson be a target for the Cubs?

21:00 - Is all this Bryant talk much ado about nothing

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast

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Joe Maddon received a first-place vote for NL Manager of the Year

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USA TODAY

Joe Maddon received a first-place vote for NL Manager of the Year

Joe Maddon's future beyond 2019 remains unclear, but his 2018 performance was good enough in someone's eyes to warrant a first-place vote in NL Manager of the Year voting.

Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker won the award, receiving 17 of the 30 first-place votes in the process. Meanwhile, Maddon also added a third-place vote to finish fifth overall, behind Milwaukee's Craig Counsell, Colorado's Bud Black and St. Louis' Mike Shildt.

Members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America vote for the award and two representatives from each market vote, adding up to the 30 voters (see the full list of 2018 NL voters here). Jayson Stark tweeted out that it was in fact 670 The Score's Bruce Levine who voted for Maddon with a hometown pick.

A large number of Cubs fans are disappointed that 2018 was the worst postseason run the team has had in the current run of four straight playoff appearances, but that doesn't factor into the voting. Maddon led the Cubs to 95 wins, second best in the league to the Brewers after Milwaukee won the NL Central playoff at Wrigley Field. He did so while Yu Darvish pitched only 40 innings, Kris Bryant was limited to 102 games and had his worst season in the majors and closer Brandon Morrow didn't pitch after July 15.

That is a decent argument to make for Maddon, but expectations have never been higher on the North Side and Theo Epstein saying the Cubs won't renew his contract this offseason isn't the highest vote of confidence.

Maddon's future with the Cubs will be a talking point until he either leaves or gets a new contract, but he has one believer in Chicago.