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Why Jon Lester, Not Jake Arrieta, Should Be Cubs' Do-or-Die Wild Card Game Ace

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistSeptember 16, 2015

Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jon Lester throws during the first inning of the second baseball game of a doubleheader against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

If the second game of the Chicago Cubs-Pittsburgh Pirates doubleheader Tuesday was a preview of the National League Wild Card Game, the Cubs will take it and smile.

Chicago got timely hitsincluding a two-out RBI single off Anthony Rizzo's bat and an RBI double from Dexter Fowler—and most of all a shutdown pitching performance by Jon Lester, who allowed one run, scattered five hits and struck out nine while twirling a complete game in the 2-1 victory.

But wait a minute, you may be asking: If that was a preview of the Wild Card Game, why was Lester on the hill? Surely if the Cubs end up in that do-or-die scenario, they'll call on Jake Arrieta, a Cy Young contender and the clear stud of the staff.

That's a fair point. Certainly the Cubs could pitch Arrieta, and no one would argue. But there is an argument to be made for Lester—so let's make it now.

After a rough start to the season, Lester has pitched like the guy the Cubs inked to a six-year, $155 million deal.
After a rough start to the season, Lester has pitched like the guy the Cubs inked to a six-year, $155 million deal.Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

First, to set the stage: After splitting their twin bill (Pittsburgh took the first game, 5-4), the Pirates (87-57) and Cubs (83-61) remain in firm possession of the NL's two wild-card slots.

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The race for the National League Central isn't over. As I recently highlighted, the next week will give us a flurry of action between the Cubs, Pirates and division-leading St. Louis Cardinals (90-54), who lead Pittsburgh by three games and Chicago by seven games entering play Wednesday.

But if the season ended today, the Cubs would play the Pirates at PNC Park with a trip to the National League Division Series on the line. And they should hand Lester the ball.

The first and most obvious argument in favor of the seasoned left-hander is his extensive postseason resume. 

Whereas Arrieta has never pitched an inning past Game No. 162, Lester owns a sterling 2.57 ERA in 84 playoff innings. He won a pair of rings with the Boston Red Sox, in 2007 and 2013, and went 3-0 in those Fall Classics, yielding just a single run in 21 frames.

Yes, there is a blemish on his record. In last season's Wild Card Game, Lester—whom the Oakland A's acquired at the trade deadline for just such an occasion—surrendered six runs in a gut-wrenching loss to the Kansas City Royals.

That one notable hiccup aside, however, Lester has demonstrated repeatedly that he thrives in the October spotlight.

That big-game pedigree is one reason the Cubs handed Lester a six-year, $155 million deal this winter. He endowed a young, hungry team with a needed veteran presence. 

If he skips the Wild Card Game, Arrieta could pitch twice in a best-of-five NLDS.
If he skips the Wild Card Game, Arrieta could pitch twice in a best-of-five NLDS.Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press/Associated Press

"This is what he does," Chicago skipper Joe Maddon said after Lester's gem, per Carrie Muskat and Tom Singer of MLB.com. "He likes pitching in big games in the latter part of the season. It's not a surprise."

And so we arrive at the second argument in favor of Lester pitching the Wild Card Game. After a rough start to his Cubs career, he's been performing like the guy who made three All-Star teams and twice finished in the top five in American League Cy Young balloting. 

As April drew to a close, Lester's ERA was a cartoonish (in a bad way) 6.23. He's since whittled it down to 3.38 and has pitched at least seven innings and given up only one run in three of his last five starts.

"I always feel better the second half of the year, physically and with my stuff," Lester said, per the Chicago Tribune's Paul Sullivan. 

Still, Arrieta is the team's undisputed ace. He leads the staff in ERA (1.99), innings pitched (199), strikeouts (204) and virtually every other meaningful category. Heck, Lester all but endorsed Arrieta for Wild Card Game duties, should it come to that.

"Everybody has an ego, and everyone wants to be that guy, but when it comes down to it, if he gives us the best chance to win that one-game playoff, I'll be on the top step cheering my butt off for him to do well," Lester said, per ESPN.com's Jesse Rogers.

Maddon has indicated he'll use Arrieta in a one-game playoff but also said pitching in big games "is what [Lester] does."
Maddon has indicated he'll use Arrieta in a one-game playoff but also said pitching in big games "is what [Lester] does."Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Now for the third and perhaps most compelling reason to pitch Lester over Arrieta: Arrieta would be available for Game 1 of the NLDS.

Yes, we're getting way ahead of ourselves by talking about playoff series with more than two weeks left in the regular season, when nothing has been decided for sure.

But bear with the hypothetical, if you will.

If Lester goes in the Wild Card Game, and the Cubs win, Arrieta could pitch twice in a best-of-five division series. And if the current standings hold, that division series would be against the Cardinals, whose pitching staff is deep and dangerous.

The other two current division leaders—the New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers—also have aces up their sleeves. 

Holding Arrieta back in the Wild Card Game means he'll have more opportunities to pitch the Cubs toward the National League Championship Series (NLCS) and beyond.

There's an inherent risk, of course: If the alternative to Arrieta starting the one-game playoff was a vastly inferior pitcher, Chicago would have no choice but to expend Arrieta and hope for the best, a strategy that worked swimmingly for Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants in 2014.

Lester, though, isn't vastly inferior. When you factor in his decorated postseason past and recent success, you can almost squint and pretend he's not inferior at all.

Now, all of this could be a moot point, as Muskat reported:

Carrie Muskat @CarrieMuskat

#Cubs Maddon says Arrieta lined up to start Wild Card playoff game. Says "But, again, our goal is not to play in the Wild Card game"

Of course, "lined up to start" and "will undoubtedly start" aren't the same thing. There's time for Maddon and the Cubbies to change course. 

The bottom line is this is a good problem to have: choosing between two superlative starters with different but equally compelling credentials. In the end, as Sullivan opined, "No one is overlooking the Cubs, who obviously have the talent and just need to play better in crunch time."

On Tuesday night, behind Lester, they did play better. Was it a preview of a coming attraction? We'll know soon enough.

All statistics and standings current as of Sept. 15 and courtesy of MLB.com unless otherwise noted.

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