As if it didn’t already seem like the obvious choice, the Cubs have rearranged their rotation for the final 10 games to line up Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks for Game 1 and 2 playoff starts.
Manager Joe Maddon pushed Hendricks’ next start to Monday, one spot behind Lester, who starts Sunday night against the Cardinals.
With a bullpen day scheduled for Tuesday or Wednesday in Pittsburgh, that would line those two leading Cy Young candidates up for the final two regular-season starts and the start of the playoffs Oct. 7 and 8 at home.
“We had a primary meeting today,” Maddon said after the Cubs finished a sweep of the Reds with a 9-2 victory Wednesday night. “By no means did we settle on anything, but we laid the groundwork for the discussion among [staff and front office]. And there are a lot of really tough decisions there. In your bullpen, how many are you going to keep and who are they going to be? And then the guys coming off the bench, all that stuff is still up in the air a little bit.”
One guy no longer in the air is World Series veteran John Lackey (10-8), who retired the final 14 he faced in a strong seven-inning start, his fourth since returning from a sore shoulder.
“I’m still building up a little bit,” he said. “I felt like I got better tonight as far as arm strength and that sort of thing, and should be right on time for when this gets real.”
Lackey also got the most run support he’s had this season since April 13 – his lack of support much of the year the biggest reason he’s the only starter on the staff without 15 wins despite a 3.39 ERA in 28 starts.
“I definitely feel like maybe I’ve pitched better than my record shows, for sure,” he said. “There’s usually one guy on the staff that kind of gets that. What are you going to do? Hopefully, I’ll win a couple games when it matters a little bit more.”
In preparation for that “real” time Lackey is talking about, Maddon said: “There’s going to be a lot of manipulation with the pitching staff over the rest of the regular season.”
Some of the specifics involve scripting bullpen use ahead of the final two series, at Pittsburgh and Cincinnati next week.
And this: Not doing any of that playoff-prep manipulation until after the Cubs are done with the Cardinals this weekend in their final home series of the regular season.
“It’s our responsibility to play those games straight up,” Maddon said of the playoff implications.
The Cardinals, who lost to the Rockies Wednesday, are locked in a three-way tie for two wild-card playoff berths with the Giants and Mets.
The Cubs are expected to play one of those three in the first-round National League Division Series.
The Cubs lowered their magic number to two for clinching home-field throughout the National League side of the postseason by matching last year’s 97 wins with 10 to play.
Notes: One day after taking a line drive off his right wrist, Lester, the veteran left-hander, was dismissive of questions about the bad bruise. “It doesn’t matter of it’s broken; it’s my right hand,” he said. “But it’s fine.” … Outfielder Jorge Soler, who hasn’t played since leaving Friday’s game with tightness in his right side, had his anticipated return pushed back again, this time to through Thursday’s scheduled off day into Friday’s series opener against the Cards. “We’re trying to be conservative with that,” Maddon said. … MVP candidate Kris Bryant hit his 38th home run of the season, a Waveland Avenue shot that kept pace with NL home run leader Nolan Arenado, who hit No. 39 for the Rockies Wednesday. Bryant said he doesn’t scoreboard watch things like that. “I watch Netflix,” he said. … With two starts left, Hendricks (2.06 ERA), has a sizeable lead for the MLB lead in ERA over Lester (2.36) as he tries to become the first Cub to lead the league in that category since Ray Prim (2.40) in 1945 – first to lead the majors since Bill Lee (2.66) in 1938. … Pitching matchups for the Cardinals series: Jake Arrieta vs. Mike Leake on Friday, Jason Hammel vs. Alex Reyes on Saturday and Lester vs. Carlos Martinez on Sunday.