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Levine: Cubs Clinch But Still Looking For Third Starter

By Bruce Levine--

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The party was on Saturday in celebration of the Cubs' entry into the 2015 National League playoffs via the second wild-card spot, at the least.

Despite losing two straight to the Pirates, who they will likely face in the wild-card game on Oct. 7, Cubs players, coaches, staffers and their fans had a right to get the strobe lights and smoke machine out after a 4-0 loss Saturday.

"For five years I have been walking around the park talking to our great fans," owner Tom Ricketts said. "People did not say, 'When are you going to give us a winner?' They almost all said, 'Stick to the plan, and we support you.' They would say, 'We will be here, just do what you have to do.' For all the fans who stuck by us these years, it's a great day. We are in the best division in baseball, but we believe we can play with anybody."

With a playoff spot secured, it's now up to manager Joe Maddon to get his players rested and the rotation set for a possible run into postseason. The first line of business will be to prepare a 25-man roster suitable for a one-game, win-or-go-home event. As speculated early in the week and now confirmed by sources, the Cubs will have two starting pitchers in Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester on that one-day roster. The rest of the pitchers will be relief pitchers.

Maddon must decide how many arms, as opposed to position players, he must have on the one-game list. Teams can change rosters before every round of the playoffs, so the winner of the wild-card games in each league can reset the unit before the divisional series start. Putting together a one-game match up list can be tricky. You must consider not knowing if the game will end in regulation or go 20 innings.

A different set of challenges for the rotation exist in a five-game division series. The Cubs will have used Arrieta and maybe Lester in the wild-card showdown. The National League Divisional Series begins two days later on Oct. 9. That means Arrieta wouldn't pitch until Game 3 at the earliest. The team's third starter or a bullpen man would be needed to start Game 2 of the NLDS.

Jason Hammel has been in the No. 3 starter role all season, but his status and outings have fallen off drastically since injuring a hamstring in early July. Since the injury on July 8, Hammel has been allowed to pitch only 62 1/3 innings over 13 starts, an average of 4.8 innings per start.

At first, Hammel was being eased back into the mix to take the strain off of his injured leg. After a sample size of post-injury starts, Maddon lost some degree of confidence in his durability. Maddon was no longer giving any latitude to Hammel when he got into the fourth or fifth inning.

Playing with house money and being a season ahead of projections won't make these difficult choices any easier for the Cubs. Maddon tried to make some baseball sense out of Hammel getting through the first three innings unscathed Saturday before giving up five straight hits. The carnage included Jordy Mercer's three-run homer in a humbling fifth inning.

"He was doing great," Maddon said. "They got five hits in a row. His stuff had been really good, then all of a sudden, it happened very quickly, a three-run homer. Yeah, he had been doing so well it happened so quickly. I was really surprised."

What really will be a surprise is who Maddon taps on the shoulder for a potential Game 2 start in the NLDS. Stay tuned.

Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.

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