By Bruce Levine–
CHICAGO (CBS) — For better or worse, the Cubs’ rotation is set for the National League Division Series.
Kyle Hendricks will start against the Nationals in Game 1 on Friday and be followed, in order, by Jon Lester, Jose Quintana and Jake Arrieta. Manager Joe Maddon pointed out Wednesday that either Hendricks or Lester could start on full rest in a potential win-or-go-home Game 5 because of the two travel days built into the schedule.
There was no news on whether No. 5 starter John Lackey will come out of the bullpen or be left off the NLDS roster. That news will likely come Friday morning when rosters must be finalized.
“It means a ton, this whole staff is behind me,” Hendricks said of his Game 1 assignment. “That is how we roll. Any of our pitchers could be making this start. It is just about lining up the rotation.”
The Cubs chose Hendricks over Lester for Game 1 based on both data and the gut feel of Maddon and their top executives. Hendricks has been the team’s best pitcher in the season’s second half, registering a 2.19 ERA in 13 starts since returning from a hand injury on July 24.
The case for Lester was that he’s a big-game performance with a 2.63 ERA in 22 career playoff appearances. Lester dealt with shoulder fatigue in August and has struggled for stretches, with a 4.33 ERA this season.
Quintana will pitch Game 3 on Monday at Wrigley Field, where the Cubs preferred to have him throw. Still feeling the effects of a strained right hamstring, Arrieta will have extra rest in pitching Game 4 on Tuesday.
“He has pitched really well and, of course, he will be able to go in the fifth game,” Maddon said of Hendricks. “The guys who pitch in the first two games can pitch in a Game 5. We thought this was the way to go with Jake getting extra time and Quintana right in the middle.”
Hendricks missed seven weeks from early June until late July because of a finger ailment on his right hand. Gaining strength back and increasing his velocity has him at the top of his game in Maddon’s mind.
“He just knows how to pitch,” Maddon said. “He is not a guy who will light up the radar gun. You talk to people who are GMs and coaches, and he is their favorite to watch. He is a technician, just fun to watch. He has come from Dartmouth to almost winning a Cy Young (in 2016), really impressive. Honestly, I think he is pitching better right now than any time last year. Why? Because the velocity is better now. The other pitches he throws are working better because of the velo .I believe he is at the top of his game.”
Hendricks’ career trajectory of developing into a frontline starter has surprised many. The Cubs acquired him from the Rangers in the Ryan Dempster deal at the 2012 trade deadline.
“We certainly did not envision this at the time,” president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said of Hendricks. “He deserves a ton of credit. He is always growing. We made the trade on his makeup. That was the primary driver in the trade. We were pretty much convinced we would get the most out of what he had. We felt he would continue to keep learning. That part has come true. Now he has taken it to another level. His ability to execute pitches and compete on a very high level is impressive. He is unflappable.”
Hendricks (7-5, 3.03 ERA) has performed well against the Nationals for the most part. He started once against them this season, taking a loss on Aug. 4 at Wrigley Field, going seven innings and allowing three runs, all earned, on five hits and two walks while striking out five. Bryce Harper is 4-of-13 with one homer in his career against Hendricks, while Daniel Murphy is 3-of-13 with two homers against him.
“Harper is a big catalyst for them,” Hendricks said. “They have a lot of guys like that who can change games — Murphy, (Anthony) Rendon, (Ryan) Zimmerman. There are so many guys in that order who can hurt you. You must focus pitch to pitch and take the situation that is presented to you. If you have to pitch around someone, so be it. You are just taking what that game gives you.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.