MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Cubs face tough call on Arrieta's return timeline

Chicago's proven big-game ace recovering from leg injury as NLDS looms

Cubs face tough call on Arrieta's return timeline

CHICAGO -- Who has pitched more big games for the Cubs than Jake Arrieta?

Not Greg Maddux. Not Fergie Jenkins. Mordecai Brown?

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Maybe, but he retired in 1916. I'd challenge John Thorn and any other baseball historian to find five games by Three Finger Brown that resonate like the following five from Arrieta, who has been a godsend for the Cubs since Theo Epstein shook him out of a Baltimore tree.

Aug. 30, 2015 -- Arrieta no-hits the Dodgers in Los Angeles during a historic second half (12-1, 0.75 ERA in 15 starts) that pushed the Cubs into the postseason a year ahead of Epstein's schedule.

Oct. 7, 2015 -- Arrieta mows down the Pirates in the National League Wild Card Game at PNC Park. His five-hit, no-walk, 11-strikeout shutout was a jolt of confidence for a young team, which would add to that by eliminating the rival Cardinals in the NL Division Series before losing to the Mets in the NL Championship Series.

April 21, 2016 -- Arrieta no-hits the Reds in Cincinnati in his fourth start of the season. It was a signature moment amid a 39-15 run for the Cubs, adding even more confidence.

Arrieta's second career no-no

Oct. 18, 2016 -- After the Cubs were shut out by Corey Kluber and the Indians in Game 1 of the World Series, Arrieta takes a no-hitter into the sixth inning, leading the Cubs to a 5-1 victory that sends the Series back to Chicago, 1-1.

Nov. 1, 2016 -- With the Cubs trailing, 3-2, in the Series, Arrieta pitches well again at Progressive Field in Cleveland. His teammates give him a 3-0 lead in the first inning, and Arrieta protects it, leaving in the sixth, with the Cubs ahead, 7-2, en route to a 9-3 win.

You can see why Joe Maddon really wants to have Arrieta in the rotation for the NLDS presented by T-Mobile against the Nationals. The question on the table is whether he can be effective given the strained right hamstring he's dealt with since early September.

"Jake pitching as well as he's been pitching the second half of the season … a real healthy Jake pitching like he can is very important to us, there's no question about that," Maddon said Friday. "But moving forward, that was a very significant injury. We're trying to get him back to be a more normal Jake."

With the luxury of being able to spend the season's final weekend preparing to face Dusty Baker's Nats in the NLDS, the Cubs scratched Arrieta from a scheduled start on Sunday against the Reds. He'll instead throw a simulated game, and how he does will determine if he's in the mix for the NLDS.

Arrieta strikes out Thames

It's clear that Arrieta thinks he should be.

He said Friday that he'll spend a few days getting rest and a undergoing a variety of modern treatments -- "contrast, cryo, hyperbaric chamber and all these different laser lights we have that promote healing, regenerate cell growth" -- but has no doubt he can handle a start against the Nats.

"When my time comes, I'll be ready, regardless of when that is," said Arrieta, who will be a free agent in November. "Whenever they want me to pitch, if it's Game 1, Game 2, Game 3, whenever, I'm fully capable. This is just more cautionary to let a little more healing take place."

Arrieta would know best, but the reality is that the strained hamstring has twice caused him to leave starts early during a September in which he's 0-2 with a 6.10 ERA over only 10 1/3 innings. That sounds like a real concern, not something requiring precautionary restraint.

Arrieta exits with an injury

While this lacks the drama of finding a surgeon to invent a procedure to reinforce a torn tendon sheath in a pitcher's ankle, it's the same kind of calculus Epstein faced in deciding whether to trust an injured Curt Schilling against the Yankees in 2004. Is it better to push one of your horses under adverse circumstances or turn to other options?

Because of the trade for Jose Quintana, the Cubs are five deep in starting pitchers, and that doesn't count swing man Mike Montgomery.

John Lackey, who figures to be the odd starter out, just held the Cardinals to one run on two hits over six innings in the Cubs' clincher in St. Louis. He's given up an NL-high 36 home runs, but he also has a 2.51 ERA in September, holding opponents to a .180 batting average in 28 2/3 innings.

The choice for Epstein and Maddon is whether to keep Arrieta in the mix alongside Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Quintana or give Lackey a start against the Nationals -- his 24th in the postseason -- while Arrieta continues to recover, with an eye toward a potential start in Game 1 of the NLCS presented by Camping World, set for Oct. 14.

"[Lackey's] done a great job," Maddon said. "Take away getting kicked out of the game after 4 2/3 [innings against the Cardinals on Sept. 15], he would have pitched pretty deeply in all those games over the last month. These aren't easy decisions to make; they're tough decisions, they're good decisions.''

Lackey's two-hit performance

Urgency rules the day in October, as the Red Sox showed by sending Schilling to the mound for a must-win game against the Yankees relying on an untested surgical procedure. The Cubs would hate losing to the Nationals without giving Arrieta a shot to turn the series their way.

The smart move could be to buy more time for Arrieta, but it's going to take a lot of organizational discipline for them to leave such a big-game guy in the wings.

"I'm very short-sighted, man, it's just about the next series," Maddon said. "Honestly. No lie. You don't even know who you're playing after that. You just got to win this one first, otherwise none of that plan matters."

This is a tough call, and likely a decision that will go down to the last minute before NLDS rosters have to be submitted. But October is a tough time to trust a pitcher who is fighting an injury, especially when you have alternatives.

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