For starters, Cubs rotation might have stuff of finishers
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If the Cubs make the kind of October history they have in mind this year, it’s likely going to start with the kind of history their five starting pitchers seem to have in mind two months into the season.
Which could make the Cubs’ last seven games a glimpse into what any successful seven-game run in the fall might take.
When No. 5 starter Kyle Hendricks pitched another strong eight innings Thursday to beat the Dodgers 7-2 in the final game of a four-game series at Wrigley Field, the rotation’s collective performance for the previous seven games looked like this:
A 5-0 record, 1.12 ERA and an average of seven innings per start.
“It’s been unbelievable. And it’s really been the full season so far,” said Kris Bryant, who smacked the left-field video board Thursday with his second homer in as many games. “That makes it fun for us, because we know what we’re going to get on the mound. So we’ve just got to go out there and do our job.”
Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jason Hammel and Hendricks are doing things two months into the season that no Cubs’ rotation has done since the end of the dead-ball era – leading the majors with a 2.38 ERA through 52 games.
“This is one of the grittiest, gutsiest groups I’ve ever been around,” said catcher David Ross, who has caught playoff staffs for four different organizations. “They’ve obviously got good stuff. But they’re smart and they’re ultra-competitive.”
Not even the 1933 and 1945 rotations – from the only Cubs’ staffs with sub-3.00 ERAs in the last 96 years – have done for a full season what this rotation is doing so far.
Of course, they’re a long way from doing it for a full season. But they’re the biggest reason the Cubs are off to their best start (37-15) since 1907 – and the reason this week’s four-game series against the Dodgers looked at times like playoff-style, pitching/fielding-heavy baseball.
“I’m always about starting pitching,” manager Joe Maddon said. “And Kyle was unbelievably good.”
And that was just Thursday, talking about his fifth starter, who has 17 innings (allowing three total runs on eight hits) in his last two starts.
For the first three games of the Dodgers series, the Cubs scored a total of four runs, and in two of those games had a total of four hits. But they won two of the three because of the pitching, including Lester’s 2-1 complete-game win Wednesday.
Consider that Clayton Kershaw didn’t pitch against them, and it doesn’t take much imagination to think postseason series against the pitching staffs of the Mets, Nationals, Giants and/or Pirates could require a similar shut-down effort.
“They give us a chance every night,” said Jason Heyward, who delivered his first Wrigley Field home run as a Cub in Thursday’s fifth – one pitch before Bryant’s blast. “It’s not always going to be perfect, but more often than not they’ve picked us up as an offense.”
During that seven-game, 1.12 stretch the staff takes into Lackey’s start Friday against the Diamondbacks, the Cubs’ only loss was their first since July in an Arrieta start – and Arrieta pitched seven scoreless innings in that game.
Maddon said the biggest reason the Cubs’ rotation looks so much better than even last year’s playoff group (3.36 ERA) is the addition of Lackey, the veteran who averaged 7 1/3 innings per start during his 2.09-ERA May.
“Just the fact that he is pitching so well, and the edge that he brings to the group,” Maddon said.
But it has been a five-man phenomenon to this point – with three Cubs among the top six in National League ERA, and Hendricks (2.84) knocking on the top-10 door.
And it has been backed by impressive – at times spectacular – fielding, including a diving catch of a liner up the middle by second baseman-for-a-day Javy Baez in the fifth, followed by an even more impressive charge and glove flip by Baez on a Chase Utley roller in the sixth.
Baez also hit one of the Cubs’ four homers.
“A lot of positives,” Maddon said, “but we were able to do all those things because the starting pitching was so good.
“Listen, man, they’re doing great. I have no complaints, and I really anticipate with good health they’re going to continue to pitch this way.”