Cubs

Cubs, Nationals set lineups for NLDS Game 1

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USA TODAY

Cubs, Nationals set lineups for NLDS Game 1

The Cubs released Joe Maddon's lineup for Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Washington Nationals Friday night.

The 25-man roster was released earlier on Friday and here's how the Cubs will line up behind Kyle Hendricks as they get set for a showdown with Stephen Strasburg:

1. Ben Zobrist - RF
2. Kris Bryant - 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Willson Contreras - C
5. Kyle Schwarber - LF
6. Addison Russell - SS
7. Jason Heyward - CF
8. Javy Baez - 2B
9. Kyle Hendricks - P

Of course, the Bryant-Rizzo-Contreras heart of the order was easy to predict. But the rest of the lineup was up for grabs and it makes sense for Maddon to roll with Russell-Baez manning the middle of the infield.

Heyward playing center is not something Cubs fans have seen much of this season, as he's started just 12 games there and played 89.1 innings at the most demanding outfield postion.

But his presence in center allows the Cubs to get Zobrist in the leadoff spot. Zobrist said he feels the best he's felt all year physically and the reigning World Series MVP is aiming to again make an impact in October.

Schwarber has made it an easy choice to insert him into the lineup, hitting .288 with a .954 OPS, 6 homers and 11 RBI in September. He didn't start or play much during some pivotal games against the Brewers or Cardinals down the stretch, but Schwarber gets his chance now to build on his "Mr. October" legacy.

Here's how Dusty Baker will line the Nationals up against Hendricks:

1. Trea Turner - SS
2. Bryce Harper - RF
3. Anthony Rendon - 3B
4. Daniel Murphy - 2B
5. Ryan Zimmerman - 1B
6. Jayson Werth - LF
7. Matt Wieters - C
8. Michael A. Taylor - CF
9. Stephen Strasburg - P

It appears Baker has realized the error of his ways and has Rendon hitting in the first inning. The NL MVP candidate (.301 average, .937 OPS) spent most of the year hitting lower in the lineup, spending 73 games in the 6-hole and 30 games hitting fifth. He made just nine starts in the No. 2 spot, 15 starts in the 3-hole and 14 starts hitting cleanup.

That first inning for Hendricks will be no picnic with Turner, Harper and Rendon and if anybody gets on, you're pitching to noted Cub Killer Murphy with a runner on base.

The puzzling move here is Baker and the Nationals' decision to go with Werth in the starting lineup. The grizzled veteran is an emotional leader for this team, but he hit just .223 with a .691 OPS against right-handed pitching in 2017, with only 15 extra-base hits in 206 at-bats. 

Adam Lind, meanwhile, has drawn a lot of starts against right-handed pitching for Washington this season and for good reason — he hit .303 with an .898 OPS against righties, crushing 14 homers and 52 RBI in only 238 at-bats.

Hendricks is also tough on righties, holding them to a .639 OPS compared to a .706 mark against lefties.

Cubs offense appears to be heating up at the right time

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USA TODAY

Cubs offense appears to be heating up at the right time

The Cubs are nearing the end of a brutal stretch where they have reported to the ball park 30 days in a row. Naturally, as that stretch is nearing its end, the offense seems to be catching fire. 

After scoring just 15 runs in their previous seven games, the Cubs have scored a combined 14 runs in two games on 21 hits. They scored nine runs on Tuesday alone, beating the Diamondbacks 9-1 in Arizona.

Scoring nine runs in one game is a great sign, but the fact that the entire starting lineup is contributing is an even better one. Every player in Tuesday's starting lineup got at least one hit, minus starting pitcher Mike Montgomery. 

Daniel Murphy entered Tuesday hitting .191 in September that included a 3-for-26 stretch dating back to Sept. 8. Tuesday, he went 2-for-3 with a leadoff single and a two-run home run.

Javier Báez was in an 8-for-30 "slump" entering Tuesday that dated back to Sept. 8. He hit a two-run home run in the first inning, his second home run in as many days. Kris Bryant hit safely for the third straight game, while Ian Happ hit an RBI double from the ninth spot in the batting order.

Baby steps, people.

Jason Heyward made his first start since Aug. 30 on Tuesday, hitting a double and scoring on an RBI double by Happ. While Heyward exited after two at-bats, it was likely to not push him too hard as he comes back from a hamstring injury.

Heyward's return is important due to his defense, but also because of his .276 batting average and respectable .743 OPS. Adding him to the lineup, no matter where he hits, is only a good thing for the Cubs' offense. 

Willson Contreras is just 1-for-9 this series, but he has been driving the ball with authority. After posting a 19.6 percent hard contact rate in August (his lowest over an entire month all season), he has posted a 32 percent hard contact rate this month (entering Tuesday's game), according to Fangraphs.

With 11 games to go, the Cubs now hold a 3.5 game lead over the Brewers for first place in the NL Central. Their magic number to win the division dropped to 8 following Tuesday's win and the Brewers 3-1 loss to the Reds.

Talks of fatigue have surrounded the Cubs recently due to their current 30-day stretch without a day off. The fact that the offense has scored as much as it has this series is quite ironic; perhaps the team sees the light at the end of the tunnel? 

Fatigue or not, the Cubs have to like they way the offense is trending as the regular season comes to a close. 

Brandon Morrow ruled out for the year as Cubs dealt another big blow to bullpen

Brandon Morrow ruled out for the year as Cubs dealt another big blow to bullpen

Brandon Morrow won't be riding in to save the day for the Cubs bullpen this October.

Theo Epstein ruled the closer out for the year Tuesday evening, saying Morrow just couldn't make it all the way back from a bone bruise.

"Every time he pitched, it got worse," Epstein said, according to MLB.com's Carrie Muskat.

Morrow hasn't pitched since before the All-Star break while battling the bone bruise in his forearm.

The Cubs gave him as much time as possible to recover and then he tried to ramp up his rehab over the last couple weeks in an effort to make it back for the postseason. 

He threw off a mound twice last week and then faced live hitters in a sim game Saturday that supposedly went well with the hope of being activated either sometime this week in Arizona or over the weekend on the South Side for the Cubs-White Sox series.

This leaves the Cubs in a serious hole in the bullpen for October, a time when relievers become some of the most important players on the roster.

With Pedro Strop's hamstring injury he suffered last Thursday in Washington D.C., the Cubs are down their top two relief pitchers for the final two weeks of the regular season and will be down at least Morrow in the playoffs. 

Strop said Monday he hoped to be able to return to the Cubs over the final weekend of the regular season (Sept. 28-30), but there is still a lot up in the air with his timeline. 

The Cubs are now left with a bullpen that includes Steve Cishek, Justin Wilson, Carl Edwards Jr. and Jesse Chavez plus a bunch of question marks.

[RELATED — Jesse Chavez has emerged as the most important pitcher in Cubs bullpen]

Will Dillon Maples be able to carve out a role in the October bullpen? What about Jorge De La Rosa or Jaime Garcia? 

The next 13 days will be telling.

Morrow has a long history of injuries over his career - making only 91 appearances (21 starts) and pitching 180.1 innings over the last five seasons entering 2018. He emerged as a dynamic piece of the Dodgers bullpen last October and appeared in each game of the World Series against the Astros.

This is the second pitcher the Cubs have ruled out for the season with a bone bruise, as Yu Darvish also had to be shut down due to a bone bruise in his elbow. Darvish had a debridement procedure on his elbow last week and is supposed to be ready to go for spring training 2019.