Cubs

Stephen Strasburg starting for Nationals, here's the Cubs' Game 4 lineup

Stephen Strasburg starting for Nationals, here's the Cubs' Game 4 lineup

It’s official: Stephen Strasburg is starting Game 4.

A win away from advancing to their third straight NLCS, the Cubs put their lineup out shortly after 10 a.m., just about five hours before the scheduled start time of 3:08 p.m. at Wrigley Field.

But then came the reports that the Washington Nationals could be pulling a fast one, swapping out scheduled starter Tanner Roark — who was supposed to pitch Tuesday — in favor of Strasburg, the elite arm who mostly dominated the Cubs in Game 1 of this series and is now on regular rest thanks to Tuesday’s rainout.

The Nationals made the move official right before noon, forcing the Cubs to alter their lineup.

Here’s what it looks like now:

1. Jon Jay, CF
2. Kris Bryant, 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B
4. Willson Contreras, C
5. Ben Zobrist, LF
6. Addison Russell, SS
7. Jason Heyward, RF
8. Javy Baez, 2B
9. Jake Arrieta, P

Only three Cubs got hits off Strasburg in Game 1. Strasburg took a no-hitter into the sixth inning of that game and wound up striking out 10 batters. Bryant and Rizzo had back-to-back hits to score the game’s first run, and Russell singled in Strasburg’s final inning of work.

Kyle Schwarber was initially announced as a member of Game 4’s starting nine, but he’s out of the lineup against Strasburg. Despite that defensive disaster in left field in Game 3, he turned in a .457 slugging percentage against right-handed pitching during the regular season. But Maddon is opting for Heyward instead with some less-than-ideal field conditions at the Friendly Confines. Heyward has also put up strong numbers in his career against Strasburg, with a slash line of .405/.463/.595 in 37 at-bats. Zobrist, who led off and went hitless against Strasburg in Game 1, is batting fifth, the same place he was when he broke up Max Scherzer’s no-hit bid in game 3 on Monday.

How good Arrieta will be is still a bit of a mystery given his hamstring issues at season's end. How good Scherzer was could help ease concerns, as the Nationals' ace had his own, much more recent hamstring "tweak" and still managed to be nearly unhittable in Game 3. Arrieta hasn't pitched since a brief three-inning outing against the St. Louis Cardinals on Sept. 26 and logged just 10.1 innings of work during the month of September while bothered by the injury.

Of particular interest will be how Arrieta handles the Nationals on the base paths. You'll remember that June start in Washington, a 6-1 loss for the Cubs, when the Nationals stole seven bases — including four alone by shortstop Trea Turner — prompting critical postgame comments from Miguel Montero, who was off the team the following day. Turner hasn't done much of anything in this series, 0-for-12 heading into Game 4, but should he get on base, he could create some headaches for Arrieta.

And, to throw one more wrinkle into this whole thing, it’s possible that Scherzer, who started Game 3 two days ago and is dealing with injury issues, could be available to pitch out of the bullpen with his team’s season on the line.

Here’s what the Nationals’ lineup looks like:

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

Much like he did Tuesday, Dusty Baker mixed up his batting order a bit while keeping the same starting eight position players. Werth gets moved up to the No. 2 spot, while Harper, Zimmerman, Murphy and Rendon get bumped down, Rendon is moved down from third to sixth. That’s the batting order the Nationals had for their most productive portion of the season prior to Harper’s injury.

The Nationals have had a ton of trouble hitting Cubs pitching in this series, getting just one earned run and six hits off the three starters. They're just 11-for-91 in the first three games of this series, and three players — Zimmerman, Harper and Taylor — account for seven of those hits. Zimmerman and Taylor are the only players with NLDS batting averages above .200.

Harper, Murphy and Rendon have had success against Arrieta during their careers, with a combined 14 hits in 53 plate appearances. Murphy, Werth and Adam Lind are the three Nationals with home runs against Arrieta.

The whole dynamic of this series has changed with the Strasburg-related drama Wednesday morning.

Buckle up for Game 4.

Cubs bolster pitching staff with minor trade, foreshadow more moves coming

Cubs bolster pitching staff with minor trade, foreshadow more moves coming

The Cubs didn't wait long to make Joe Maddon's words come true.

Roughly 5 hours after Maddon said the Cubs are definitely in the market for more pitching, the front office went out and acquired Jesse Chavez, a journeyman jack-of-all-trades type.

It's a minor move, not in the realm of Zach Britton or any of the other top relievers on the market.

But the Cubs only had to part with pitcher Class-A pitcher Tyler Thomas, their 7th-round draft pick from last summer who was pitching out of the South Bend rotation as a 22-year-old.

Chavez — who turns 35 in a month — brings over a vast array of big-league experience, with 799 innings under his belt. He's made 70 starts, 313 appearances as a reliever and even has 3 saves, including one this season for the Texas Rangers.

Chavez is currently 3-1 with a 3.51 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 50 strikeouts in 56.1 innings. He has a career 4.61 ERA and 1.38 WHIP while pitching for the Pirates, Braves, Royals, Blue Jays, A's, Dodgers, Angels and Rangers before coming to Chicago.

Of his 30 appearances this season, Chavez has worked multiple innings 18 times and can serve as a perfect right-handed swingman in the Cubs bullpen, filling the role previously occupied by Luke Farrell and Eddie Butler earlier in the season.

Chavez had a pretty solid run as a swingman in Oakland from 2013-15, making 47 starts and 50 appearances as a reliever, pitching to a 3.85 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and 8.2 K/9 across 360.1 innings.

"Good arm, versatile, could start and relieve," Joe Maddon said Thursday after the trade. "I've watched him. I know he had some great runs with different teams. 

"The word that comes to mind is verstaility. You could either start him or put him in the bullpen and he's very good in both arenas."

It's not a flasy move, but a valuable piece to give the Cubs depth down the stretch.

There's no way the Cubs are done after this one trade with nearly two weeks left until the deadline. There are more moves coming from this front office, right?

"Oh yeah," Maddon said. "I don't think that's gonna be the end of it. They enjoy it too much."

Jason Heyward has become an offensive catalyst

Jason Heyward has become an offensive catalyst

Expecting Jason Heyward to carry a team offensively would be thought as foolish just a few short months ago. But here in the middle of July, Heyward has turned into the offensive firestarter the Cubs have been seemingly missing since Dexter Fowler left. 

Heyward walked away from Thursday night's 9-6 win over the Cardinals tallying three hits, two RBI, two runs scored and his first stolen base of the year, as the 28-year-old outfielder continued to poke holes in the Cardinals defense. 

Twice Heyward was able to slip a ball between the 1st and 2nd basemen that off the bat looked like neither had a chance to make it through the right field side. Later, Heyward would battle through a lengthy at-bat, finally being rewarded with an opposite-field hit that drove in the game-tying run. 

"It just happened," Heyward explained. " [Carlos Martinez] is not going to give you a whole lot to do damage on throughout the game. I was able to get one pitch there and get a guy home." 

Cubs manager Joe Maddon mentioned Heyward and his ability to move the ball around the field and how it's helped him become an effective piece to this Cubs offense. So effective Heyward's batting average crept up to .290 after today's three-hit performance. 

Heyward credits his quick hands as the major tool he's utilized to create so many successful at-bats lately, which has allowed him to take advantage of certain pitches and punch them through for hits.

He's certainly not driving the ball for consistent power, but the approach has put Heyward on pace to match the 160 hit total he amassed with the Cardinals in 2015. 

"I feel like Joe's mindset on moving the ball is putting the ball in play when you got guys on base," said Heyward. "It keeps the line moving, regardless of the result." 

It might be crazy to think that Heyward's incredible turnaround this season might simply be attributed to putting the ball in play. But even just taking a look at Heyward's contact rates shows he's increased his contact on pitches outside the zone by roughly three percent.

Not a massive difference, but if Heyward's hands are truly giving him an edge at the plate, making contact with pitches that may not be a strike but are hittable pitches could explain the increased offense we are seeing now. 

"That's kinda the biggest thing," said Heyward. "The more good swings you take, the more hits you have a chance to get." 

Shooters shoot, and Heyward continues to shoot his shot and keep the Cubs offense chugging along.