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Cubs Mon Oct 12 2015
Joe Maddon's sole focus is to put the Cubs in the best position to win every single game. He's had that mindset since the April 5th season opener against the Cardinals, and hasn't strayed from it since. For the most part, he builds what he considers the strongest offensive lineup against the opponent's starting pitcher. The goal is simple: get a lead in the first six innings, and gradually maneuver into a lineup that is more defensive oriented to give the bullpen the best chance at holding the lead.
This also means that nobody's spot in the lineup is safe. Though Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant are going to be on the field everyday, they have no idea until the lineup card is posted in the clubhouse where they'll be hitting. And for Bryant, he has no idea where he'll play positionally. The only person who knows where they're fielding and batting every day is Dexter Fowler, who has started all but three of his 149 games as the leadoff hitter playing in center.
The biggest question going into every game recently has been who's flanking the steady Fowler in the outfield. Is Kyle Schwarber in left field, or is it right field tonight because Pittsburgh is a notoriously hard place for a hitting-focused left fielder? Is Chris Coghlan in the lineup, or is Maddon going to buck the lefty hitter/righty pitcher matchup to get Jorge Soler's powerful bat in the order?
It's a great problem to have. Most managers are locked into a lineup because they lack depth. The Cubs are lucky enough to have both depth and flexibility, and Maddon stretches those traits to the absolute maximum to give his team an advantage.
Against Michael Wacha, the usual corner outfield conundrum will once again be the question going into Game 3 of the NLDS. It's doubtful that Tommy La Stella starts at third to push Bryant into one of the outfield corners. Schwarber will almost certainly return to the lineup to play left field and bat second after sitting in Game 2, so the only remaining question is what the Cubs will do in right field: Soler or Coghlan?
Wacha historically fares better against left handed hitters, posting a .214/.280/.268 slash line against them over the last three years, as opposed to .242/.298/.397 against right handers. Soler has looked fantastic at bat against the Cardinals, reaching base in each of his five plate appearances thus far. Coghlan struggled in his Game 1 start against John Lackey, and holding him out of the starting lineup also keeps a home run capable lefty on the bench for a possible pinch hit situation later in the game.
Where Soler will bat in the lineup is another question entirely. Fowler, Schwarber, Bryant and Rizzo are probably locked into the top four spots. The fifth spot is where you could see Soler pop up, but Castro will likely stay put there because of his contact-oriented style behind a group of guys who get on base. Montero will probably bat sixth, which leaves Soler to bat seventh. Addison Russell will follow to hit eighth like he did in the one-game playoff against Pittsburgh, with Jake Arrieta hopefully pitching a complete game shutout in the ninth spot.
Flexibility and depth have been keys to the Cubs success since opening day. They've used dozens of lineup combinations to start and put guys in defensive positions where they might have felt uncomfortable. It's all to prepare them for outlandish situations that tend to pop up in the playoffs -- so they're not seeing things for the first time in a pressure spot.
We've seen Maddon's lineups turn out exactly as planned, too. Just look at the second game of 2015. Arrieta pitched seven shutout innings, La Stella and Coghlan started and were removed for defensive replacements late in the game, and the Cubs beat the Cardinals 2-0. We can only hope that near-term history repeats itself, because this Cubs team has made it clear that they don't care about anything else.