MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Cubs' rotation nearly perfect top to bottom

Question is, can Maddon get them some rest before October?

Cubs' rotation nearly perfect top to bottom

CHICAGO -- Facing a fifth starter is a good thing, right?

Maybe not when you're going against the Cubs.

Jason Hammel, who is in his second season as a back-of-the-rotation guy at Wrigley Field, starts against the Angels on Wednesday night. He's got a 3.07 ERA, including a 1.50 mark in four starts since the All-Star break.

Mike Scioscia, the Angels' manager, can think of starters he'd rather face. Entire pitching staffs, for that matter.

The Angels lost to Jake Arrieta and the Cubs on Opening Day, and then Jon Lester in the second game of the season. Scioscia has had to use 12 different starting pitchers since then, and here are the Cubs with the same five starters heading toward mid-August.

"They've been doing the job start after start for a long time,'' Scioscia said. "Seems like they maintained their health, their stuff. From when we've seen from them, Opening Day 'til now, there's been very little attrition with their stuff. It hasn't eroded. They're throwing the ball with the same stuff we saw in the spring. That's unusual.''

After trading for Aroldis Chapman two weeks ago, Theo Epstein cited the health and production of the rotation as a motivating factor that eased his angst over parting with top prospect Gleyber Torres. He acknowledged the opportunity to reach the World Series for the first time since 1945 and perhaps to end a championship drought that dates to 1908.

It seems like all the Cubs have done since adding Chapman is win. Their 5-1 victory behind John Lackey on Tuesday night gives them an 11-2 record with the overpowering closer in uniform.

The key to the recent success -- really, the biggest key to the success since Opening Day -- is the consistently effective work by Arrieta, Lester, Lackey, Hammel and Kyle Hendricks.

Arrieta and Hendricks are in the top five in the National League in earned run average. Lester, Lackey and Hammel all rank within the top 21, contributing to an overall ERA of 2.93 for the rotation, best in the Major Leagues.

Arrieta's domination of hitters was the Cubs' calling card last season, when they found their stride in August and rolled all the way to the NL Championship Series. He's been terrific this season, but the rotation behind him has been much better.

"They all have that veteran presence that helps them to understand the world isn't ending if they hang one curveball,'' Scioscia said. "They trust their stuff and what they can do.''

Scioscia is correct in pointing out that Lackey and the roster of the Cubs' starters have maintained their stuff.

They have a 2.42 ERA since the All-Star break, and that includes an unsuccessful cameo by Brian Matusz, who got a start only because manager Joe Maddon is trying to preserve his starters' arms for a run in October.

Hendricks, a 26-year-old Dartmouth product whom fans call "The Professor,'' is providing almost as much of a lift for the rotation as the addition of Lackey, who left the Cardinals to sign a two-year deal because he's convinced he can help the Cubs win a World Series.

In his first full season in the Major Leagues, Hendricks made 32 starts last season. He was solid but worked only 180 innings as Maddon protected him. He's 11-7 with a 2.17 ERA this season, inspiring Greg Maddux comparisons with his command and the bat-defying movement of his changeup.

Lester (12-4, 2.93) is pitching better than he did last season, which was the first in the six-year, $155 million contract that coaxed him away from Boston. He and Arrieta (13-5, 2.59) were both All-Stars.

Lackey has been the most vocal starter, as Maddon knew he would be. He was a coach with the Angels when Lackey pitched for Scioscia, winning Game 7 of the 2002 World Series as a 24-year-old rookie in 2002, and admired the swagger he carried into Wrigley Field for a Division Series game last October. Lackey beat Lester that night, but the former Red Sox teammates are on the same side now, providing a backbone for a team they think can win the World Series.

"I didn't come here for a haircut,'' Lackey said after an especially emotional start against the Marlins last week.

Against the Angels, Lackey gave up a solo home run to Kole Calhoun in the first inning and then breezed. He allowed only two other hits, both singles, in an eight-inning outing in which he struck out six. Safe to say, he's back on his game after getting bounced around in three of his last four starts before the All-Star break.

That was the one down period for the entire five-man rotation. The starters showed fatigue, turning in a 7.05 ERA over the last 16 games of the first half.

Maddon points to that being a stretch when the Cubs played 24 days in a row, thanks to the makeup of an April rainout. He gave the since-traded Adam Warren one start to break up the grind but says he saw the workload turn into a negative.

That appeared to be the case for Arrieta at the end of 2015, too. He was so locked in during the finish of his epic second-half performance (12-1, 0.75 in 15 starts) that he turned down chances for extra rest, telling Maddon he needed to pitch every fifth day.

Madden wonders if he could have been sharper when he faced the Cardinals in the NLDS and the Mets in the NLCS. Maybe he should have taken some days off when he had the chance.

"Possibly,'' Maddon said. "It's hard to say, but it's possible. Especially because of the jump [in innings] he had to encounter last year. The teaching point out of all that is the fact that these guys know that. If you've never done that before and then somebody is coming to you and saying, 'Listen I want you to back off now,' they always want to pitch. They think they're supposed to pitch. But now you know how you feel.''

Preserving a pitching staff for October. Before it's even mid-August.

Phil Rogers is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.