Closer? The need for speed? 10 questions for Cubs to answer in 10 games
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PHOENIX — The Cubs just survived the worst 30-day stretch of the Maddon-Epstein Era with their bullpen in tatters but their playoff plans intact and their sanity in need of only slight repair.
Or maybe just the day off that Thursday provides.
In the meantime, with 10 games to play after Wednesday night’s game in Arizona, against the White Sox (three), Pirates (four) and Cardinals (three), these are the 10 big questions they face in their efforts to survive another October gauntlet.
1. Can anybody be a playoff closer for this team? Or can everybody? With Brandon Morrow out, and Pedro Strop down – for now, with a hamstring injury – manager Joe Maddon plans to run almost everyone left in his bullpen out in leverage moments the rest of the way to see what he’s got and prepare them all for a setup/closer-by-committee postseason. “There’s no reason to hang our heads. We have a deep bullpen that’s accomplished quite a bit,” said team president Theo Epstein of the pen with the best ERA and opponent batting average in the National League. “We’re going to find a way.”
2. Who’s your Game 1 starter? A rotation that was up and down most of the season suddenly has performed like this in September: Kyle Hendricks 2-1 with a 1.82 ERA; Jon Lester 2-1, 1.45; Jose Quintana 2-1, 1.96; and Cole Hamels, um, 0-1, 5.17. On second thought, never mind. Lester starts Game 1, Hendricks Game 2.
3. Is Hendricks’ potential as a playoff force overlooked? Last year’s Game 1 playoff starter is finishing as well as he has since his 2016 ERA-championship season. And as he approaches career-high volume numbers, he says: ““I feel as good as I’ve felt at the end of the year [in my career]. This might be my top innings, but it doesn’t feel like it. Legs feel good, everything feels good right now.”
4. What about Mike Montgomery? Glad you asked. The lefty who has done nothing this year but back up his strong comments about deserving a chance to start has the rotation’s best ERA since joining the group in May (3.31) and career highs in starts and innings. All of which makes him a welcome and significant addition to the depleted bullpen in October.
5. Who gets the last bench job – Tommy La Stella or Terrance Gore? How about both? La Stella is an exceptional weapon as a left-handed bench bat (franchise-record 23 pinch hits), and Gore would be the best in the playoff field at turning someone’s late-inning walk into a double with a pinch-running steal. Heads up, Ian Happ?
6. Can the Cubs score enough runs to beat playoff pitching? Look at the pitchers who won’t be in the NL playoffs and then ask that question: Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Aaron Nola, Noah Syndergaard, Stephen Strasburg, Zack Greinke, Patrick Corbin, Jameson Taillon and possibly Kyle Freeland.
7. So can they score enough runs to beat playoff pitching? With the exception of the Brewers’ racist bullpen dude, the Cubs have enough balance and experience to hit any pitcher they figure to face on the NL side of the bracket.
8. Is Javy Baez this year’s MVP in the NL? Yes.
9. What’s that question have to do with making plans to win in the playoffs? Nothing. Except for making sure he’s kept in an injury-proof bubble the next 10 days.
10. So what happens if the Cubs win the NL pennant and face the Red Sox, Astros or Indians in the World Series? It’s been said that anything can happen in a seven-game series. But the more pertinent question might be: How about those Bears?