MILWAUKEE – The Cubs should run all the numbers, analyze where the Pittsburgh Pirates will probably hit the ball against Jake Arrieta and break down every possible lineup combination and bullpen matchup.
But the National League wild-card game will likely hinge on Arrieta pitching like a Cy Young Award winner, whether or not he can do what Madison Bumgarner did to the Pirates last year, carrying the San Francisco Giants to their third World Series title in five seasons.
Yes, manager Joe Maddon wanted another look and played Kyle Schwarber in right field against the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday night at Miller Park. That could be a wild-card preview, especially since PNC Park’s dimensions mean there is less ground for a part-time catcher to cover in right field than in left.
Maddon also started Kris Bryant in left field, still experimenting and maximizing versatility at Game 160 to get a better feel for Game 163.
“All these guys have been all over the map,” Maddon said. “I wanted to make sure they’re aware of all the different parts. I wanted to see what it looked like.”
The buildup to this one-game playoff has intensified the obsession Cubs fans and the Chicago media have with the daily lineup. But on some level, the Cubs know this is overkill after playing the Pirates 19 times already this season – and winning 11 of those games.
“I’ve asked for our geeks to send me some stuff to just look at,” Maddon said. “I’m always looking for other people to give me opinions.
“(It’s more) the skills that we have, whether we’re looking for more offense – or more defense – and how that plays. But to break down all the minutia…
“I’ve learned that the scouting reports at that time of the year – if you could grab a nugget or two – don’t even give them to your players. They just need to go play. Now if there’s something in-game you can remind somebody about, that’s probably the best way.
“Believe me, it sounds like you’re nuts. They should be able to handle this. They’re big-league players. They’ve been doing this for a long time.
“Our game really requires kind of an open, free mind to play. And if you’re bogging it down with stuff, man, it can only get in the way.”
That’s how Starlin Castro has been playing since losing his job to Addison Russell. The three-time All-Star shortstop has looked sharp defensively at second base, carefree in the clubhouse and locked in at home plate in September (1.202 OPS).
Castro should also feel confident facing Gerrit Cole (19-8, 2.60 ERA), going 6-for-17 with a walk and a sacrifice fly in 19 plate appearances against Pittsburgh’s ace.
“He definitely plays in a very non-uptight manner,” Maddon said. “I love the fact that he goes out there and he’s tension-free.”
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Ultimately, it took four years for the Theo Epstein administration to build a playoff roster. The rest is fringe stuff, which could still be important in an elimination game featuring two stud pitchers and two teams with at least 190 wins combined.
But the Cubs already made their biggest decisions, drafting big bats like Schwarber and Bryant and trading for foundation pieces in Russell and Arrieta and hiring the manager you would want making all those decisions in real time.
“It’s the team that plays the better game that night, catches the ball, works a better at-bat,” Maddon said. “Your pitcher’s going to be in charge of the moment, primarily. That’s how I look at it.”