The Cubs have an opportunity to wrap up this instantly classic series on Tuesday evening after snatching a victory from the clutches of Max Scherzer on Monday. The Cubs need only win one of the next two games, and they have their first crack at a clinch at Wrigley Field with Jake Arrieta on the mound. It’s a good feeling—nearly perfect starting pitching, combined with timely hitting, has delivered two victories and nearly a third.
The Snake Slithers Back
Much like Game Three, Game Four’s path will depend on the health of one starting pitcher. The Cubs’ right-hander hasn’t been fully healthy since the end of August, nursing a tender hamstring for over a month now. He made two starts after returning from the injury, one strong five-inning outing in Milwaukee and one less-than-effective, three-inning start in St. Louis. Is Arrieta healthy enough to get into the fifth or sixth inning, and to throw 80 to 100 pitches? Only the Cubs’ training staff and those in the know can determine that, but Arrieta threw around 70 pitches in each of those two final starts. It’s been two weeks exactly since his last start, and he’s had that time to heal. We know Arrieta can be a workhorse, and we saw Scherzer twirl 6 ⅓ no-hit innings with an injured hamstring on Monday.
The bigger question is about Arrieta’s ability to get outs, though. Just prior to his injury, I profiled Arrieta’s dominant second half, and he lowered his ERA all the way to a season-low 3.36 in the start immediately prior to the injury. His sinker and slider/cutter were more lively in the second half, with his velocity trending upwards, his movement more closely resembling that of his 2015 heights, and his mechanics, sequencing, and pitch mix all coming into harmony. He’s no Scherzer, but Arrieta is pretty damn good in his own right and a good candidate for a gutsy playoff performance.
If Arrieta loses, and the Cubs fail to win in Washington, this will be Arrieta’s last start in a Cubs uniform. Let’s hope he gets one more crack in the NLCS.
Sterling Starters = Fresh ‘Pen
Because the Cubs’ three starters have been almost perfect, the bullpen has thrown precious few innings. Only seven total pitchers have appeared for the Cubs, with Wade Davis, Carl Edwards, Jr., Pedro Strop, and Mike Montgomery snagging all of the relief work so far. That is, of course, a function of the high-stress, low-scoring games in which the Cubs’ starters have pitched deep. Edwards has been the lynchpin of three games now, surrendering the game-tying home run on Saturday versus Bryce Harper, but defeating Harper in the rematch on Monday. Strop and Davis have been spotless, and Montgomery handled the difficult fireman duty after Harper’s homer.
That leaves a host of fresh arms in the ‘pen: Justin Wilson, Brian Duensing, and John Lackey. It would be wise to prepare Lackey to piggyback with Arrieta should Arrieta aggravate his injury or fail to escape the early innings, but Joe Maddon will have the luxury of using his lesser relief arms in less impactful spots, while turning to the quartet of Davis, Strop, Edwards, and Montgomery for the high-leverage innings.
About that starting pitching? The Cubs and Nats have combined for a 1.22 ERA from their starters, whereas the other six playoff teams’ starters had a combined ERA of nearly seven as of the end of the Cubs game. The Cubs’ starters have allowed a single run in 18 ⅔ innings, good for an ERA of 0.48.
Anthony Rizzo has come through in the clutch several times already in just three games this postseason, with all four of his hits coming in four opportunities with runners in scoring position. His reputation as such a good hitter in those high-leverage situations apparently didn’t faze Dusty Baker, who decided to pitch to the lefty in the pivotal eighth inning of Game Three. With a runner on second and two outs, Baker summoned wizened lefty Óliver Pérez, but Rizzo aired a bloop single into center on the first pitch. In the immediate postgame interview, Rizzo expressed disbelief that Pérez pitched to him in that spot. Rizzo will certainly receive more opportunities to make his impact felt in Game Four, and hey—the Nationals have to respect Tony!
The Nationals will not break their promise to not bring back Stephen Strasburg on short rest, instead tabbing Tanner Roark for Game Four’s start and saving Strasburg for Thursday’s potential Game Five in Washington.
Roark grew up south of Joliet, in Wilmington, Illinois, and attended the University of Illinois. Roark endured a rough year in Washington, as he tossed 181 ⅓ innings of 4.67 ERA baseball. DRA likes him a bit better than most metrics, with his 4.10 mark good for 13 percent better than league average, and he did post a career-high 21 percent strikeout rate, with a solidly average walk rate. It won’t be a cakewalk for Cubs hitters who have struggled to put up crooked numbers on the Nationals, but Roark is a degree of difficulty lower than Strasburg, Gio González, or Scherzer.
The winds at Wrigley are blowing favorably for a return to the NLCS for the defending champs. Arrieta is as likely as anyone to dominate Nationals hitters, and Roark is perhaps overmatched by the Cubs lineup. If the bats wake up, the Cubs should find themselves poised to take on the winner of Dodgers-Diamondbacks for the pennant.
Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports