CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs began prep work for their return trip to the NLCS on Thursday as they attempt to make it to the World Series for the first time since 1945.
Manager Joe Maddon declared Jon Lester his Game 1 starter for Saturday night but stopped short of announcing Kyle Hendricks (forearm contusion) ready for Game 2, though the righty threw under the watchful eye of pitching coach Chris Bosio on Thursday.
“Boz said he felt good today, so we’re in good shape,” Maddon said. “Just making sure Kyle is healthy. You always wait a little bit [after throwing] … I still like the concept of Jon and Kyle in this ballpark.”
One win in the upcoming series against the Washington Nationals or Los Angeles Dodgers would be one more than they had last season at this point in the year, but a single victory is hardly what the Cubs want. This team is prepared for much more. And going through the experience of getting swept by the New York Mets in last year’s NLCS should pay dividends this time around.
“We knew our guys were young [and], we didn’t know what to expect,” general manager Jed Hoyer said at Wrigley Field with his team working out behind him on Thursday. “Unchartered waters. This year is different. Most of our guys have played in the postseason before.”
And the one guy that wasn’t around last year — Willson Contreras — had the biggest hit to date in the playoffs. His 2-run single in Game 4 tied the Cubs and the San Francisco Giants at 5-5 not long before Javier Baez drove in the game-winning run.
“At the end of the day you learn how to win,” Maddon said.
Talent and experience paid off in the first round as the Cubs mounted a memorable, hard-to-believe ninth-inning rally against the Giants to advance. After Thursday’s NLDS Game 5 between the Nationals and Dodgers, baseball is down to four teams.
“You’re sitting in the dugout, and when you get to the final four … there’s only one other game going on,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That’s pretty impressive.”
The Cubs admit they struggled on offense against the Giants, doing most of their damage via their pitchers until Kris Bryant‘s Game 3, ninth-inning home run followed by their ninth-inning rally in Game 4. The Cubs hit .185 over their first four postseason games.
“We struggled at the plate in that series,” Hoyer said. “Maybe that kind of rally is what we needed to open the flood gates.”
“We understand sometimes you’re going to face good pitching,” Heyward said. “There are stretches where guys don’t get hits but find a way to win a game.”
Hoyer added: “It’s nice to know we can win a series without having our best offense.”
That last point by Hoyer could be a good one depending on your perspective. Either they are due, or it will catch up with them leading to some bad defeats. The consensus at Wrigley Field was they are trending in the right direction — especially after that ninth inning.
As for hitting in the next round, Heyward summed up the road ballparks.
“In D.C, if it’s warm, it’s good, it plays fair,” he said. “Day games in L.A. are good. Night games are hit or miss.”
• The Cubs may choose to roster 12 pitchers and 13 position players for the NLCS which means adding one hurler while removing one position player from the last round. Last season the Cubs remained at 11/14 when they played the Mets in the NLCS, but the Dodgers, in particular, could present the need for an extra lefty arm. The Dodgers were ranked last in baseball against left-handed pitching with a .214 batting average. That’s 20 points lower than second-to-last and 64 points lower than the best team (Boston).
“It’s a consideration,” Maddon said of taking 12 pitchers. “Part of that may be about what happens tonight (Thursday).
Asked specifically if rookie left-handed reliever Rob Zastryzny could make the roster, Maddon didn’t hesitate: “Everything is on the table,” he said. “Rob Z is definitely in the mix.”
If the Nationals are the opponent, the Cubs could keep the roster as is. It’s not an easy call.
“There were parts of the last series that pushed for both,” Hoyer said. “There were moments you were glad to have the extra position players, and there were moments when you wanted the extra pitcher … . Certainly no one played themselves off the roster. If we have to make changes, it’s because we have to go with a different mix.”
• Maddon said he isn’t considering moving Baez (.375/.412 in NLDS) up in the lineup while demoting Addison Russell (.067/.125).
“The threat there is Javy won’t be Javy,” Maddon said. “I still have a lot of faith in Addison. … He’s just under them (fly balls) a click. I don’t think he’s been awful by any means.”
The Cubs will have another day of workouts — along with their opponent — on Friday afternoon. Maddon thinks his team can settle in now that rust and the first round are behind them.
“Getting to this next moment will chill out everyone a little more,” he said. “We’re playing baseball well. That’s my take away from all this.”