By Bruce Levine--
CHICAGO (CBS) -- A goal of the surging Cubs down the season's stretch is trim down the pitch count and innings workload of their starting pitchers. With a 12-game lead in the NL Central entering Wednesday evening, Cubs management and the coaching staff have met to discuss a strategy for keeping the rotation fresh and ready for October baseball. It's a process they began last offseason after a deep playoff run.
Manager Joe Maddon admits the increased innings of last season has caught up with his starting five at times. This time around, the manipulation of those August and early September innings will be key. MLB rosters expand in September, giving teams a chance to add more pitchers.
"By the time September comes, it thickens up, so it is easier to do that," Maddon said. "These last 20 days of August are really the most difficult to try and be careful with. That would be in regard to innings, pitching and moments. As I say that, I know a lot of our guys have really been pitch efficient to get into the seventh inning. We are pretty good about that. I will take seven. I will take six-plus. With the bullpen, if we can just parcel out some innings to different guys, our goal is not go to the back end very often. That is what I am looking for."
Maddon may be most concerned getting right-hander and reigning NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta ready for the postseason. A fresh Arrieta often leads to a dominant Arrieta who's a much different animal than the pitcher who was just pedestrian from late May to early July.
Arrieta has returned to form, and the Cubs will look to scale back the stressful innings for him. Arrieta threw 248 innings combined between the regular season and postseason in 2015, which was 92 more than he had ever thrown in a single season.
A similar approach will likely be used for left-hander Jon Lester and right-hander John Lackey, who follow Arrieta in the rotation. The Cubs want to keep all of their starters between 180 and 200 innings, though Lackey is on pace to exceed that. Each pitcher has about 10 starts left. Lackey has already thrown 151 1/3 innings, while Arrieta checks in at 142 1/3. Lester has thrown 135 1/3 innings.
Lester and many pitchers pride themselves on their workload.
"I pride myself in getting 200 innings," Lester said. "That is a very important number to me. I think having that number kind of solidifies your season. If you try to minimize guys' workloads based on something like we have a big lead or whatever, for me that is where you're asking for trouble. If your up by six runs or so and you want to go out for the eighth and are at 90 pitches, OK, that may be the time and place to use good judgment. I agree with that type of handling."
The conversation might get a little sticky if the Cubs still have a huge division lead in September and the Lesters and Lackeys want to hold onto the ball.
"For me, you just let guys pitch," Lester said. "Let them be themselves and take the ball, then see what happens."
Maddon has no worries right now about the innings of his rotation members.
"One of our goals was to pitch 1,000 innings as a group of starters," Maddon said. "That is in our abilities right now. I think that is pretty solid. Every year with the really good teams I have been associated with, your starters went about 1,000 innings. When you get five to do that (200 innings), that is pretty significant. Again, it is about really monitoring this as we go along. They are all in pretty good shape right now. There are no red flags right now."
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.
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