MILWAUKEE — The question was posed in the form of a Twitter poll as soon as Cole Hamels’ rough start Friday night against the Brewers was in the books during a 7-1 loss at Miller Park:
Who is your Game 1 playoff starter for the Cubs?
The Cubs’ top four names were put forth: Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Yu Darvish and Hamels.
Hamels, of course, had no chance if for no other reason than the recency bias associated with the five runs and nine hits he gave up — including a pair of long home runs by Christian Yelich and Yasmani Grandal — in barely three innings.
But even beyond that, the question proved as troubling as the issues that have bedeviled each potential pitching choice as the Cubs try to rally late to keep alive a streak of playoff seasons that’s in jeopardy of ending at four.
Darvish and Hendricks got the most love in what shaped up as a three-way split decision after two hours. But also receiving write-in votes were fifth starter Jose Quintana, swingman Tyler Chatwood (two perfect innings Friday) and 76-year-old Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins.
And that’s the thing, right? As the backbone of this Cubs competitive run claws and fights so often just to compete these days, the very question becomes a trick question.
As some respondents tweeted (presumably in Jim Mora’s voice): “Playoffs?!?!”
“Time’s ticking, and this is why I’m here,” said Hamels, a four-time All-Star who has an 8.53 ERA in his last six starts as he continues to struggle to return to form since an oblique injury. “It’s to get the job done and continue to put good games out there for this team and give them an opportunity to win, and I’m not doing so.”
The Cubs didn’t look close to a playoff team Friday. They also didn’t lose any ground to the first-place Cardinals, who still lead the division by 2½ games. But the loss did cost them a game to the pursuing Diamondbacks, who closed to just 2½ games behind the Cubs in the race for the National League’s second wild-card berth.
Forget the Game 1 question. The starters have to make the question even relevant in the first place and become at least a steadier force in the final three weeks.
“It’s going to be very important,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We’ve always gathered our strength from our rotation. That’s been a real bedrock for us.”
Six innings with the lead has been the first and biggest part of the formula for four years of success at closing out games and playoff spots.
“The starting rotation’s going to be a big part of our success,” he said.
The Cardinals might have their own tough question regarding a Game 1 starter, based on strong performances.
So far, the same can’t be said of the Cubs. Even Darvish, their top performer since the All-Star break, is under close watch by the medical staff.
Lester is the Cubs’ best career postseason performer, with a 2.51 ERA in 26 games, and Hendricks (2.98 postseason ERA) has pitched some of the biggest games in Cubs history. But Lester has a 4.98 ERA since the All-Star break and has been especially victimized by the leaguewide homer binge this season.
Hendricks has a 1.77 ERA at home, but it’s 5.20 on the road.
“At least I have four more starts to make a dent in helping this team win,” he said. “And I know Darvish is going to come out tomorrow and do what he does. It’s just guys being able to feed off of each other and get us into the right direction.”