ST. LOUIS – Jake Arrieta or Jon Lester?
Yeah, right. If there ever was a debate over who would start the National League wild-card game, it’s over.
As far as the Cubs are concerned it’s long over.
Even before Wednesday’s gut-punch, 4-3 loss in St. Louis inched the Cubs another game further from the Cardinals for the division lead – and perhaps another inch closer to a wild-card game, Cubs manager Joe Maddon confirmed the Cubs’ machinations to align Jake Arrieta (18-7) for a showdown with Pittsburgh’s Gerrit Cole (16-8) in the Oct. 7 loser-out playoff game.
The team is using Monday’s scheduled off day to move Arrieta up one day in the rotation, starting him in the opener of a doubleheader in Pittsburgh Tuesday – the second time in a month they’ve done that with him – lining him up for a natural turn on Oct. 7.
The only questions left involve whether the Cubs can catch the Pirates to turn that into a home game, or catch the Cardinals for the division title and avoid the game altogether – a possibility that dimmed in Wednesday’s eighth, when the Cards scored three against the Cubs’ bullpen to avoid a Cubs’ sweep.
Instead of moving to just 5 ½ games back of the first-place Cardinals, the Cubs slipped back to a 7 ½-game deficit, with 24 to play.
Assuming, neither the Cubs nor Pirates catch the Cardinals, an Arrieta victory over the Pirates makes Jon Lester the Game 1 starter in St. Louis for the five-game Division Series – exactly one month after he retired 20 of the final 21 Cardinals he faced in a dominant, seven-inning start Wednesday.
“I could give two flying you-know-whats who gets picked [for the one-gamer],” said Lester, who has a 2.49 ERA in four starts against the Cardinals this season – after beating them twice in the 2013 World Series.
“Listen, everybody has an ego, and everybody wants to be that guy,” said the left-hander who became the $155 million pitching centerpiece to the Cubs’ turnaround as a free agent last winter. “But when it comes down to it, if he gives us the best chance to win that one-game playoff, I’ll be on the top step cheering my butt off for him to do well. There’s no competition here; the competition is on the field. We’re trying to win a World Series ultimately.
“The statement that I think he’s probably the best pitcher in baseball right now probably sums that one up.”
Arrieta, who leads the majors in ERA since the All-Star break (0.91), has dominated the Pirates this season (2-1, 0.86 in three starts – with a nine-inning scoreless streak into Tuesday).
The Pirates announced they’re skipping Cole (16-8), in his next start to line him up for the wild-card game, too.
“But our goal is not just to play in that wild-card game,” Maddon said. “I don’t want our guys to lose track or thoughts of trying to catch the Cardinals. I think that’s our best way to play outstanding baseball for the rest of the month leading into the playoffs.”
Arrieta dismissed his lack of playoff experience is an issue.
“I think that’s overblown and overstated,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to me. The noise out there, I’m not even aware of it.
“It’s just a game.”
The decision was made more than three weeks ago.
Although Arrieta’s second-half dominance might have rendered the debate moot, Maddon didn’t deny that Lester’s inability to effectively throw to the bases and hold runners is a consideration – especially against an aggressive, athletic team like the Pirates, who rank fourth in the league in steals.
“I think that would have to be a consideration, under those [one-game] circumstances, just being honest,” Maddon said. “The primary thing to look at would be who is the team and what kind of game are they capable of playing.”
Either way, Lester – who was on the 2011 Red Sox team that collapsed in September – cautioned: “We’ve got to get there first. I’ve been on the other side of it. I’ve been up and not made the playoffs, and we were talking about who’s starting Game 1.
“We’ve got a long way to go.”