By Bruce Levine–
CHICAGO (CBS) — The Cubs rotation was back to full strength Sunday, with right-hander John Lackey making his first start since injuring his throwing shoulder on Aug. 14. In a marathon contest that was won 3-2 by the Cubs over the Giants on Jason Heyward’s RBI single in the 13th inning, Lackey pitched five innings, allowing two runs, one earned, on one hit while striking out four and walking one.
Lackey and his rotation mates will get six days off between starts ahead of their next starts, as the Cubs will keep left-hander Mike Montgomery in the rotation and they have an off day Thursday. It’s part of the plan by manager Joe Maddon on his coaching staff to keep the pitchers sharp while not overusing them in September with a huge division lead.
“This is pretty easy,” Maddon said. “We are trying to keep guys fresh the rest of the year. It’s no more complicated than that. You will run into a lot of the regular starters that will not like that. The reason is they have been trained not to like that. You get through that moment and the later part of the year. You hopefully (are) getting into the playoffs at that point. I think they will be happy.”
Limiting the starters’ innings while simultaneously keeping them game ready is an unscientific approach at best. Dating back to last offseason, the Cubs front office, Maddon and his staff have been preparing to keep pitchers fresh for a long playoff run.
“Right now throughout the industry, you are noticing a lot of good young pitchers or pitchers in general talking about fatigue,” Maddon said. “The other part of this is if you have a guy you like in the six hole (Montgomery), that makes it easier to do what we are doing now. I think every factor that can be considered makes sense right now.”
With a 16.5-game lead in the NL Central, the Cubs (88-48) could clinch the division title within 10 days or so. Having that luxury allows many creative innovations with rest and substitutions in the last 26 games of the season. Maddon saw the innings toll of 2015 wear down the effectiveness of the team’s rotation by the start of the NLCS last fall. Notably, ace Jake Arrieta threw 248 2/3 innings between the 2015 regular season and postseason and wasn’t the same in the biggest games late.
Maddon doesn’t want it to happen again.
“At the end of the day, the starters are trained to think a certain way,” Maddon said. “I get it. I totally get it. I also believe the train that surpasses the conventional part is to win a World Series. All that matters is we saw it with our very eyes what transpired with Jake. Right now our starters are pitching as well as they have all year. I think if we continue along this path, we can keep that kind of freshness about them.”
The grizzled veterans like Lackey may provide some verbal pushback along the way with Maddon, trying to retain their tried-and-true regiments.
For now, Lackey tried to ignore the six days off he’s getting until next Sunday’s start.
“I have not looked that far ahead,” Lackey said, though it was clear he didn’t much care for that much rest. “That is a decision these people have made. We will see what happens.”
With Sunday’s win, the Cubs’ magic number to clinch the division dropped to 11 with 26 games left to play. Heyward drove in all three run, including Anthony Rizzo in the 13th with the game-winning base hit. The Giants had just walked Addison Russell to set up a forceout, then Heyward came up.
“There is a lot of juice right now,” Heyward said. “That is the right matchup by them. You set up the force or double play. (Giants pitcher Matt Reynolds) made some pitches. I just got lucky and the bat was long enough. I got one to fall in.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.