Kyle Hendricks will open up the National League Division Series on the mound for the Cubs against the Nationals on Friday.
Jon Lester will take the bump on Saturday for Game 2 at Nationals Park. Jose Quintana and Jake Arrieta will round out the rotation back at Wrigley Field for Game 3 and 4 (if necessary) on Monday and Tuesday.
The way the rotation is set up allows the Cubs to potentially utilize Hendricks and Lester in a Game 5 situation.
But this isn’t the lineup Joe Maddon originally envisioned his postseason rotation would look like.
This season, the Cubs starters have dealt with a variety of injuries, some occurring late in the season. Hendricks missed nearly all of June and July with a hand injury. After returning from a seven-week leave, Hendricks was able to find consistency, rounding out the regular season 3-2 in 13 starts with a 2.31 ERA.
Lester and Arrieta have also caught the injury bug, which is the reason the rotation didn’t start with Lester and Arrieta was assigned to the fourth spot.
Maddon said he believes the pitching lineup “would’ve gone a different way” if the Cubs didn’t put Lester on the disabled list with a lat tightness and shoulder fatigue in August. Lester missed two weeks before returning, but has been pitching well since. He is 5-1 in six starts with a 3.90 ERA in September.
On the other hand, Arrieta is still struggling with his hamstring injury.
Arrieta left the mound on Sept. 4 after pitching 2 1/3 innings with a hamstring strain. Arrieta has thrown two games for 8 innings since the injury, but he’s still dealing with soreness. The former Cy Young winner is expected to throw a bullpen session Wednesday.
But despite the injury drama, Maddon is still confident in Hendricks as his starter for Game 1.
“He does it with a different method. He’s a technician,” Maddon said. “I think he’s pitching better right now than at any time last year.”
Hendricks has also had plenty of success during the postseason — beating Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw in last season’s NLCS clincher and started Game 7 of the World Series against the Indians. Hendricks said the Game 1 starting role isn’t a position he’s taking lightly.
“It’s definitely an honor. I’m going to take it that way,” Hendricks said. “I’m going to be excited to get out there, with the energy that will there in Game 1.”
But just because the always cool, calm and collective Hendricks has been there and done that, doesn’t mean he won’t still have the same level of excitement that he had last year.
“You’re going to have a little bit of butterflies for sure. But I think it’s just that excited feeling,” Hendricks said. “This is what you live for. This is the time of year that you want to be playing … and we’re ready for it.”
Lester has had an off year this season. He’s 13-8 with a 4.33 ERA with 180 strikeouts in 180 2/3 innings. To put it in perspective, Lester was 19-5 last season with a 2.44 ERA and 197 strikeouts in 202 2/3 innings.
Lester said he’s ready to put his regular season performance behind him and start off the postseason with a clean slate.
“That’s what’s cool about the postseason. No matter what your regular-season numbers look like, no matter how good or bad, it starts back at zero,” Lester said. “You don’t have to turn around and see [on the scoreboard] that high ERA or whatever else stands out.”
Starting pitching always plays a crucial role in October baseball, but it’s even more important with the Cubs facing the Nationals’ triple threat: Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Gio Gonzalez.
Strasburg has been dominant since the All-Star break, especially over the last month of the regular season. He’s 4-0 in his five most recent starts with a .083 ERA. He also recorded 40 strikeouts in the 32 2/3 innings he pitched in September, which helped him earn the National League Pitcher of the Month honor.
But the trio took a ding as question marks surround Scherzer. His starting status remains uncertain after he “tweaked” his hamstring, a similar injury to Cubs’ Jake Arrieta. Despite the injury, Scherzer is confident that he’ll be pitching in the NLDS. He’s expected to throw a bullpen session Wednesday.
The Nationals are expected to announce their rotation Thursday.