Cubs manager Joe Maddon tells the story anytime somebody wants to know about his relationship with Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon and why he admires the spherical right-hander.
“His favorite donkey on the [childhood] farm was named Pancho,” said Maddon, who became close to Colon while they were together with the Angels more than a decade ago. “And he always wanted to be like Pancho, the hardest-working animal on the farm. And he still is. I love Bart.”
In Anaheim, Maddon would fill out the lineup card as a coach on Mike Scioscia’s staff, and would write “Pancho” on the starting pitcher line every fifth day.
He still calls Colon “Pancho” when he sees him.
He may be calling him the guy the Cubs have to beat in the first round of the playoffs – maybe twice – starting Oct. 7.
While the Cubs spend the final two weeks of the season resting and preparing for the National League Division Series, the Mets, Giants and Cardinals are locked in a pitched, three-way fight for two wild-card playoff spots.
The survivors play the loser-out game, with the winner opening the NLDS against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. One game separates the three in the wild-card standings.
The Cubs are scouting and compiling video on all the potential matchups, team president Theo Epstein said, and have some thoughts on how well they match up with each, and how some roster decisions might be affected.
Beyond that, “I don’t have any strong opinions who we’d rather play,” Maddon said before the Cubs’ 5-2 victory over the Reds behind seven strong innings from Jason Hammel (15-9) and a three-run rally in the seventh.
The opinions will come soon enough.
The questions and challenges already are presenting themselves.
The Mets led the wild-card standings by a game before losing to Atlanta on Monday, and would seem the most desirable first-round opponent of the three – if for no other reason than three of the Mets’ four power-pitching starters from last year’s playoff sweep of the Cubs are sidelined with injuries.
Assuming ace Noah Syndergaard is the wild-card starter, that figures to line up Pancho for Game 1 against the Cubs – a 42-year-old veteran who beat the Cubs in New York this year and lost to Kyle Hendricks at Wrigley.
But Colon, who went to the Mets bullpen in the postseason last year, is having an All-Star season. He’s 14-7 with a 3.14 ERA, and the Mets have won five of seven against the Cubs overall – nine of 11 going back to October.
And the Mets are hotter than any of the wild-card contenders despite a roster decimated by key injuries – 11 wins in 14 games before Monday.
“You can tell [the Cubs are] confident out there,” said Mets first baseman James Loney, who hit a grand slam during as a member of the wild-card Dodgers during their sweep of the best-in-the-NL Cubs in 2008. “They’ve got all the pieces in place.
“There’s been plenty of examples of teams that Vegas will tap them as the favorite and they don’t win.”
That also has been a big part of the history of wild-card upsets and five-game playoff series.
Would the Cubs be any better against the division-rival Cardinals, with all their familiarity? They beat them in October last year, after all. But, then, the Cardinals have played the Cubs even (8-8) this year despite their inconsistent season – beating the Cubs in five of seven games at Wrigley, with three left this weekend.
And the listing Giants could be as formidable as anyone even if they back into the NLDS – if only because their postseason experience and frontline starting pitching make them dangerous.
The last time they pitched ace Madison Bumgarner in a wild-card game, they beat the Pirates on the road and went on to win the World Series (in 2014).
This time around they have Cy Young candidate Johnny Cueto (16-5) as a potential Game 1 starter against the Cubs. He pitched seven powerful innings against the Cubs at Wrigley two weeks ago in a game the Cubs won in 13 innings.
“There’s no answers for playoff baseball,” Giants outfielder Hunter Pence said. “You go play it. And just because you have the best record in the regular season – it’s about getting hot at the right time. And emotions change.
“It’s a dream to be in the playoffs and chase a World Series championship,” said Pence, whose Giants have done it successfully three of the last six years. “We love it.”