The Chicago Cubs clinched the NL Central and a National League Divisional Series matchup with the Washington Nationals next week. Now Joe Maddon has one weekend, games 161 and 162, to sort out his pitching staff for the playoffs.
People were quick to rule the Cubs’ trade for Jose Quintana in mid-July a win after he struck out a dozen over seven shutout innings in his first start as a Cub. Quintana pitched well that initial month, rounding it out with two more quality starts.
Since, he’s fought bouts of inconsistency. Quintana threw a complete-game shutout two starts ago and then failed to get through five innings yesterday at Wrigley Field. His ERA is 2.51 in September but it was over 5.00 in August. And even though it’s dropped three-quarters of a run since he came over from the White Sox (4.49 to 3.74), he hasn’t proven to be anything more than another above-average starter muddled in the mix with Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and John Lackey.
So after Kyle Hendricks likely starts a Game One, it will be some combination of those four guys, either over the next three games or four. Maddon will get a chance to see Lester, last postseason’s ace, one last time this evening before he makes any decisions.
Lester bounced back from a rough outing in Tampa Bay 10 days ago when he gave up seven earned and was yanked in the fifth inning. He gave up five hits and a run over six in St. Louis five days ago.
His numbers indicate that he’s no longer an ace but the Cubs don’t necessarily need him to be if the four other guys and the bullpen can help him out, just a little bit each. Of course, it was all easier when the Cubs could depend on him for seven good innings and a win, like they could last postseason.
He’ll face Jackson Stephens of Cincinnati, a guy who has barely thrown over 20 major league innings. He made his third career start last weekend against Boston and it ended up being his best yet: six innings, two hits and a run in what became a 5–4 loss for Cincinnati. Stephens has allowed 21 baserunners in 21 innings but he’s also served up five homers. The ERA, though, is 3.86.
So, funny as it may sound, Jackson could be the better pitcher on Saturday. The Cubs have seen him before — in his big league debut (5 IP, 3 ER) — but he’s young, fresh, and still a relative mystery. Lester will try to be at his best with the postseason looming but it won’t necessarily be easy. I figure this one will be close, fairly low-scoring, but maybe not low enough to play the under, and that either side will have a chance to win. Cincinnati is a big underdog so it has to be the play.
Free Pick: Cincinnati +1.5