One of the big reasons the Cubs are favored to plow through the postseason field and make history this month is by sheer force and innings from the top-performing rotation in baseball.
Maybe next series.
If the Cubs’ series victory over the Giants in the first round suggested anything about the Cubs high-performance rotation it might be that it should have more in the tank as the postseason shifts to lengthier, seven-game series with Saturday’s National League Championship opener at Wrigley Field.
The only starter to earn a victory in the series was Jon Lester, who pitched eight scoreless innings in that opener, and who takes the mound in Saturday’s NLCS opener as well.
Only one of the three others pitched more than four innings, with Jake Arrieta pitching six strong and hitting a homer in Monday’s 13-inning loss.
But don’t make the mistake of discounting this group going forward, said Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz. It’s a championship-caliber rotation, said the playoff broadcaster who pitched in five World Series for the pitching-rich Atlanta Braves during his 22-year career.
“When Jake Arrieta’s slotted third, that’s all you need to know,” Smoltz said. “He is by far one of the scariest pitchers to face when it comes to all his elements working in unison.”
And unlike last year, Arrieta hasn’t skyrocketed past his career-high for innings and hit a wall in the playoffs. Kyle Hendricks is a different animal than a year ago, having led the majors with a 2.13 ERA. And John Lackey is a postseason animal who was pitching for the Cardinals last year — the only one to win a playoff game for that 100-win team in 2015.
Not to mention Lester.
“That’s what a horse looks like,” Smoltz said. “He pitches, he competes, he eats up innings.”
The Cubs haven’t announced the order of their rotation for the NLCS beyond Lester. Part of the reason was to await Hendricks’ status the next morning after throwing a bullpen session Thursday, five days after he was knocked out of Game 2 in the fourth inning by a line drive off his forearm.
Arrieta’s success against the Dodgers was in play as a factor as the Cubs also awaited Thursday night’s game to determine their opponent.
What seemed clear was that the Cubs will need – and expect – more from Hendricks and October ace Lackey, who wasn’t sharp Tuesday in his first start in more than two weeks, to reach their first World Series in 71 years.
“I have a lot of faith in our guys,” said manager Joe Maddon, who attributed Lackey’s issues in Game 4 to the long layoff. “They’ve been doing it all year. They’re absolutely rested going into this moment. So I feel very strongly about our starting pitching.”
So, apparently, does Smoltz, who raved about the balance of styles in the rotation, including Hendricks’ mastery without an overpowering fastball and Lackey’s experience that includes starts in two World Series clinchers.
“They’re professional. They’ve been there, done that,” Smoltz said. “And they all pitch according to their great defense, and maximize the resources that they have.”
He added: “They’ve dominated in the era of baseball that is looking to hit the ball out of the ballpark, no contact, and this is the way we play now. So they’ve maximized the ability to be the cream of the crop.”
That rotation is one of only four since 1990 to produce an ERA under 3.00 (2.96). Smoltz’ Braves in 1992 – the year before Greg Maddux went from Chicago to Atlanta – was the first of that foursome.
And, yes, Smoltz said, these Cubs starters (including fifth man Jason Hammel) were that much better than anybody else in the majors – by eye test as much as stats.
“The Giants are close,” Smoltz said, citing their trading-deadline addition of Matt Moore, who pitched so well against the Cubs for eight innings Tuesday. “But [the Cubs] have the perfect blend.
“The difference for me this year – besides the emergence of Kyle Hendricks – is when they got John Lackey, you could say that singlehandedly might have been the separator between the Cardinals and the Cubs.
“People don’t understand the veteran leadership and the ability to depend on a guy like that in the postseason,” he added. “If any hiccups happen, they’ve got John Lackey. Pitching fourth.”