Injuries plague potential playoff foes as Cubs gaining strength

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John Lackey beat the Pirates Tuesday to finish his first regular season with the Cubs 11-8 with a 3.35 ERA, “probably one of my better ones of my career.”

PITTSBURGH – The Dodgers have used 15 different starting pitchers because of injuries this year.

The Mets are officially down to one power arm from the four who swept the Cubs from the playoffs last year, after the Mets announced Tuesday that Steven Matz will have elbow surgery.

And the heart of the Nationals’ batting order has taken game-changing injury broadsides in the last two weeks, the latest coming this week when All-Star catcher Wilson Ramos’ tore his ACL – with MVP candidate Daniel Murphy already sidelined indefinitely with a gluteus strain.

Could a league the Cubs bull rushed for nearly six months on their way to the playoffs suddenly be opening an express lane to the World Series for them?

“It’s kind of weird how this season has worked out,” third baseman Kris Bryant said. “Right place at the right time. Maybe the baseball gods are on our side.

“But you never know,” he quickly added. “You never want to see anybody get hurt or anything like that. And even with the [Nationals’ injuries], you look at their pitching staff, and I could say it’s comparable to the Mets from last year. They have a lot of guys who have stepped up this year.”

Maybe. But Stephen Strasburg, the Nats’ No. 2 starter, is likely out for at least the NLDS because of a forearm injury, the team said this week.

And a Cubs team that was favored to win the World Series before it played its first spring training game seems only to reach new heights and milestones as it closes out a regular season that has produced 101 wins with five games to play – while the rest of the National League playoff field struggles to keep lineups and rotations intact.

Buy another rabbit’s foot or find a bat to knock on wood, but just take a look at the guy on the mound Tuesday night, earning that 101st win, to know all you need to know about the different directions the Cubs and some of the other NL contenders are headed as October looms.

Right-hander John Lackey (11-8) – the only pitcher from a Cubs opening rotation in two seasons to spend time on the disabled list – pitched five strong innings Tuesday in his fifth start back from a sore shoulder to beat the Pirates 6-4.

He would have gone six if the Cubs weren’t preparing the staff for the playoffs, manager Joe Maddon.

“The rest was good for him,” Maddon said of the 37-year-old veteran, who still wound up with 188 1/3 innings and a 3.35 ERA in his first season with the Cubs. “He’s going to be coming into the postseason well-rested.”

In other words, even one of the Cubs injuries has turned into a playoff advantage.

“I don’t think our injuries have been as magnified because we’ve covered them pretty well, but we still had our moments like everybody else,” Maddon said, mentioning Kyle Schwarber’s season-ending knee injury, center fielder Dexter Fowler’s midseason hamstring injury and recent issues with relievers Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon.

“But when you get to right now, we’re getting well, which is hopefully a trend that continues.”

Fowler? He walked and scored in the second Tuesday and added a run-scoring double. Strop and Rondon are both back in the Cubs’ late-inning crew.

And the Cubs await an Oct. 7 home playoff opener against the beat-up survivor of a three-way wild-card race – and subsequent elimination game. If they advance, then it’s a home opener in the NLCS against the Nationals or Dodgers – in an ambition-vs.-attrition matchup.

“None of that matters. None of that matters at all,” playoff-veteran Jason Heyward said of the rash of injuries afflicting the Cubs’ potential playoff foes. “We’ve been able to overcome our injuries and make the best of what we have, and that’s why you see us win 100 games right now. And that’s what I saw last year with that [2015 Cardinals] team.”

But Heyward’s 100-win Cardinals team was eliminated by the wild-card Cubs in the division series.

“Once the playoffs start, it’s a different animal,” said Heyward, who played for a 2010 wild-card team in Atlanta that he believed was good enough and hot enough at the right time to make a World Series run.

“We thought we had that momentum you’ve seen wild-card teams have,” he said. “But then [Martin] Prado went down, and then [closer] Billy Wagner went down. Chipper [Jones] went down. Huge blows.

“Every game we played in that division series with San Francisco was a one-run game,” he said. “And they went on to win the World Series.”

Nobody in the clubhouse disputes the value of such cautionary tales.

But even two-time World Series-champ Lackey – who grudgingly admits the down time for the shoulder “could be a little bit of a positive” in the playoffs – sees the grail at the end of the Cubs’ 100-plus-win rainbow.

Just ask him if he’s surprised at how everything has clicked into place as the playoffs get close.

“No,” he said. “I had some pretty good [free agent] offers from other people, and I chose this one for a reason. It’s all here.”

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Notes: The team activated left-hander Drew Smyly and optioned sidearmer Jose Cuas to Triple-A.