The Cubs have known for weeks they would be here, hosting Game 1 of the National League Division Series as the best team in baseball during the regular season, and were idle the last four days feeling, catcher David Ross said, like “the cooped-up dog in the house.”
The Giants waited until the ninth inning of Wednesday night’s 3-0 wild-card win over the Mets to advance to the NLDS, and they arrive in Chicago on the emotional wave of Conor Gillaspie’s game-winning home run and more October dominance from Madison Bumgarner.
To the question of whether either team’s road to Friday’s series opener at Wrigley Field gives them an edge, Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta offered a great equalizer.
“A lot of guys will say you’re only as good as your next day’s starter,” Arrieta said. “You can have momentum all you want, but if the guy on the hill’s able to shut the offense on the other side down, that gets the momentum leaning in your favor pretty quickly.”
The rotations in this series were two of the best at that this season. Chicago’s starters led the majors with a 2.96 ERA. The Giants’ ranked fourth in the National League (3.71) but stack up formidably in a short playoff series.
The matchup for Friday’s opener is a tone setter: Johnny Cueto, who won 18 games this season with a 2.79 ERA, will start for the Giants against Chicago left-hander Jon Lester, who went 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA.
It also says something about the depth of the two rotations. Lester drew the Game 1 nod over teammate Kyle Hendricks, who led the majors this season with a 2.13 ERA, and Arrieta, last year’s N.L. Cy Young winner who had a down season in comparison but still had 18 wins for a Cubs team that finished with 103.
Chicago manager Joe Maddon said there was “a component of meritocracy involved” in handing Lester the ball Friday, adding that he preferred starting a left-hander against a Giants lineup that can feature up to five left-handed hitters. Hendricks is scheduled to go in Game 2 with Arrieta starting when the series shifts to San Francisco on Monday.
The Giants will send Cueto to the mound after using their ace, Bumgarner, to get through the one-game wild-card round. While Bumgarner’s four-hit shutout of the Mets added to his growing status as one of the best postseason pitchers ever, Cueto was arguably the Giants’ best pitcher for stretches this season, starting the All-Star Game and going 4-0 with a 1.78 ERA over his final five regular-season starts.
“I think you look at Johnny and Bum, they’re both number ones,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said Thursday. “We’d be comfortable with them in any game. So the fact that we used our guy to get here, now we have Johnny, sure, that’s a nice luxury.”
While Bochy did not name his rotation past Cueto, he could start Jeff Samardzija in Game 2 with Bumgarner returning for Game 3. Another option is left-hander Matt Moore, who started the season finale and pitched eight strong innings as the Giants clinched a playoff spot.
If Bumgarner starts Game 3 after outdueling Noah Syndergaard in the wild-card game, it will set up another titanic pitching matchup against Arrieta, though the Cubs right-hander said that’s something he is “not worried about.”
“I’m not, like, licking my lips because Bumgarner’s on the other side,” Arrieta said. “Whether it’s Cueto, Samardzija, Matt Moore, those guys are all good.”
Bochy acknowledged there is “no question” the Giants’ rotation is deeper than it was two years ago when they won a title largely on the strength of Bumgarner, who threw 52 2/3 postseason innings with a 1.03 ERA. That included 21 innings in the World Series, when he won Games 1 and 5 and threw five innings of scoreless relief in Game 7. Other Giants starters in that series combined for a 9.92 ERA.
The Giants made their rotation a priority last offseason, signing Cueto for $130 million and Samardzija for $90 million.
Cueto faced the Cubs once this season and allowed a run in seven innings, part of a four-game series in early September at Wrigley Field in which every game was decided by one run. The Giants lost three out of four, but their pitching kept them in a series in which they hit a combined .106 and scored 10 total runs.
It may be the biggest source of confidence for the Giants entering the NLDS, as Bochy said he believes the Giants’ offense is in a better place than it was a month ago.
“I think you have to look at the last five or six games; this team is finding ways to score,” Bochy said. “We get a timely hit, and it’s not just one guy. … I think they’re getting better swings off and better at-bats, drawing walks and getting back to who they are.”
Seeing the Cubs’ rotation again should test that theory.