Jake Arrieta and a Cubs playoff rotation look a little shaky as clinch party waits another day

ST. LOUIS – “Woof,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said when asked how comfortable he feels about this rotation heading into the playoffs compared to last year’s World Series group. “Let’s (see) Jonny Lester getting back to normalcy and that Jake (Arrieta) is well.”

Popping champagne bottles and toasting another National League Central title is still only a matter of time. But what are the Cubs going to do once they get there and have to game plan for an explosive Washington Nationals lineup and match zeroes in a five-game series where Max Scherzer can start twice?

Not trying to be a buzzkill here, but Arrieta didn’t erase all the doubts after Tuesday night’s 8-7 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, admitting that the right hamstring he strained on Labor Day is still not 100 percent and lingering as a potential glitch in his carefully wired mechanics.

“I’ve had to adjust a couple things in my delivery,” Arrieta said. “It’s still there a little bit. But I’m fine. I’m plenty healthy enough to go out there and compete and pitch at a high level. I just wasn’t able to do that tonight, unfortunately.”

Arrieta – whose transformation into a Cy Young Award winner really started the run of clinch parties in 2015 – couldn’t get it done this time. The magic number remained stuck at one with the Milwaukee Brewers closing out a 7-6 win over the Cincinnati Reds at Miller Park, where Arrieta looked sharp five days ago against a playoff contender in his first start in 18 days.  

Arrieta watched St. Louis leadoff guy/old college buddy Matt Carpenter launch his fifth pitch over the center-field wall. That first inning came unglued when Mike Freeman – a bench player starting at shortstop with Javier Baez resting his sore right knee and Addison Russell taking a scheduled day off – committed an error that led to two unearned runs.

As the Cardinals desperately try to stay alive for the second wild-card spot – now 2.5 games behind the Colorado Rockies with the Brewers still in front of them – Tommy Pham launched a 92-mph Arrieta pitch 426 feet into the second-deck, left-field seats in “Big Mac Land” for a two-run homer in the second inning.

Already capped by a conservative pitch count, Arrieta got pulled after 67 for a pinch-hitter in a bases-loaded situation in the fourth inning, a reality check before the Cubs can party in a visiting clubhouse covered in plastic.     

“I don’t have the drive that I do at 100 percent, but it’s still plenty enough to be effective,” Arrieta said. “The velocity’s really good tonight. Stuff’s not an issue.”

This comes at a time when Lester is searching for answers (4.79 ERA since the All-Star break) and trying to get into rhythm after spending two-plus weeks on the disabled list with left lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue. Maddon also sees Kyle Hendricks “throwing the ball as good as I’ve seen him” and Jose Quintana thriving amid the pennant-race pressure.   

But the playoff rotation could revolve around Arrieta, the NL pitcher of the month for August and perhaps the best pitcher on the free-agent market this winter. Before Game 1 in Washington, the Cubs are planning to start Arrieta in Game 162 on Sunday against the Reds in what could be his final start at Wrigley Field.

“You’re just trying to get to October,” Arrieta said. “And then the guys that we have can pitch in big games in October. They have done that for a long time. Regardless of what the regular-season stats are, we’ve got three, four-plus guys that can go out there and pitch really well in October. I think we’ve shown that in the past.

“But, yeah, we still got to get there. We need one more win. And we’ll figure that out after that.”