“Jon Lester is warming up in the Cubs’ bullpen.”
That was a surprising announcement to hear over the speaker in the middle of Game 4 of this NLDS, a game in which the Cubs’ season was not on the line, a game in which the score was a razor-thin 1-0 in the fifth inning.
Lester, of course, pitched in relief last postseason, when he relieved Kyle Hendricks in Game 7 of the World Series. This time, though, manager Joe Maddon wasn’t calling on Lester to save his team with a championship on the line. He called on him to take the baton from Jake Arrieta and prevent a return flight to Washington for a Game 5.
Of course, that’s not how it played out. Lester was mostly terrific in his 3.2 innings of work, going nine up, nine down through three frames before getting two outs — including a pickoff at first base that had Wrigley Field exploding — in the top of the eighth. But lifted before getting out of that inning, Lester was relieved by Carl Edwards Jr. and Wade Davis. Edwards issued back-to-back walks to load the bases, and Davis served up the grand slam to Michael Taylor that landed in the right-field basket and flipped this NLDS on its head.
Despite what came after he left, it was the kind of performance Maddon was looking for out of Lester, one of the best postseason pitchers ever.
“The fact that he was available,” Maddon said when asked why he turned to Lester as the first man out of the ‘pen to relief Arrieta. “We could have done him or (Jose) Quintana, but he pitched before Q, so we went with him first.
“We didn't know exactly where Jake was going to be tonight, so we talked about that in advance. Now, when that showed up, if this score was like we're losing 4-0, (Lester) would not have pitched tonight. It would have been (Mike) Montgomery and the rest of the bullpen. But that part of ballgame, I felt strongly about it. It was the fact we predetermined that he's going to back up Jake tonight, and then Q would back up Kyle (Hendricks) tomorrow night because we're able to do that. That was it.”
As Maddon alluded to, we could see a similar scene play out Thursday night in the do-or-die Game 5 in Washington. Hendricks will get the start, but Quintana, who started and pitched wonderfully in the Cubs’ Game 3 win on Monday, figures to be the first guy out of the chute.
“You've got obviously starting, Kyle, and then Quintana will play the role of Jon Lester tomorrow if it's necessary,” Maddon said. “We talked about that pregame. If, in fact, it was really close, which it was — that was a good spot for Lester tonight — and then tomorrow, just everybody's available tomorrow. So it will start with Kyle, and Q is ready tomorrow to back up like Jon did tonight and the entire bullpen.
“We'll be fine tomorrow.”
Earlier Wednesday, it was Nationals manager Dusty Baker talking about the “all hands on deck” approach to Game 4, his team a loss away from being eliminated from the 2017 postseason. Now, the Cubs are in the same boat. It seems they used the “all hands on deck” approach a night early, with Lester relieving Arrieta, whose performance coming in was a bit of a mystery given the long layoff while dealing with a hamstring injury.
But now that approach spins into Thursday, too. And while Quintana has been terrific for the Cubs, he’ll be the only piece of this postseason rotation available to help out Hendricks because Arrieta and Lester likely won’t be available.
And this is all without mentioning John Lackey, who’s yet to be used in this series. The aforementioned Montgomery has faced just four batters. And what becomes of Edwards, who has had two disastrous outings in this series?
The Cubs know Hendricks will pitch tomorrow. It sounds pretty likely that Quintana will, too.
While some folks might instantly start thinking what the heck this all means for the NLCS, pump the brakes. The Cubs need to get there first.