Why leadoff spot could decide Cubs/Nationals series
Quick, who led the Chicago Cubs in appearances from the leadoff spot this season?
If you answered Jon Jay, you'd be correct. The versatile outfielder started as the No. 1 hitter in the Cubs' lineup 51 times, and the Cubs went 30-21 in those games.
The battle of the leadoff hitters should be one to watch between the Cubs and the Washington Nationals in the National League division series, beginning Friday night at Nationals Park.
The Cubs went with 11 different leadoff hitters this season, with Ben Zobrist (40 games) and Kyle Schwarber (36) finishing behind Jay. Others seeing time included first baseman Anthony Rizzo (14), catcher Willson Contreras (2) and since-traded outfielder Matt Szczur (1).
The lack of success by Schwarber forced the Cubs and manager Joe Maddon to scramble to fill the top spot, which was a sea of tranquility the past two years with Dexter Fowler being the constant before he signed last off-season with the St. Louis Cardinals.
"A lot of it was based on who was playing that day," Maddon said. "Part of it was if Zobrist and Jay were playing, I thought Zo needed to protect Anthony. So Jay would hit leadoff. If Jay was not playing and Zo was, Zo would hit leadoff.
"I tried to dabble with Ian (rookie Happ) just to see what it looked like as an example. Of course we did Rizzo and Contreras and all that kind of good stuff.
"I think overall, if you look at the production out of the leadoff spot, it's been really good. Yeah, listen, Dexter did a great job. I'm not going to deny that, absolutely, and you see what he's doing right now. He was at the top of his game the last couple times we played them.
"But I think the guys that have revolved have done a pretty good job."
The Cubs had an OPS of .745 out of the leadoff spot, ranking 10th in the NL. The Nats were seventh, at .752. Before Tuesday's workout at Wrigley Field, Maddon said he hadn't formulated his lineup for Game 1, in part because the Cubs don't know if Max Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg will be pitching.
Zobrist said the leadoff spot was an all-hands-on-deck situation this year.
"You can't leave Rizzo out; he wants to be involved in that conversation, too," he joked. "But I think every guy in our lineup does a great job of trying to be flexible and doing what the club needs. That's the mark of team players.
"We've got a lot of team players, great guys that are willing to do whatever it takes. There are some of us that don't feel the most comfortable in that spot, but it doesn't matter. We've got some guys that have done it really well."
As for the other side, the Nationals would have had more stability from the leadoff spot had not the Cubs figured into the equation.
On a hot afternoon at Nationals Park on June 29, Cubs reliever Pedro Strop hit Nats leadoff man Trea Turner with a pitch in the seventh inning, sending Turner to the 60-day disabled list with a broken right wrist.
Even so, Turner led the Nationals with 90 starts at the leadoff spot, and he will merit special attention from the Cubs. He wound up with a line of .284/.338/.451 with 11 home runs, 45 RBI and 46 stolen bases. Turner's second half line was .297/.371/.525.
If Jon Lester starts Game 1 for the Cubs, Turner's escapades on the bases could be critical. He stole two bases (and was caught stealing third base) against the combo of Lester and Contreras one day after then-Cubs catcher Miguel Montero was sent packing for making critical comments about the Cubs holding runners on.
In the June 27 game, Turner stole four bases off the combination of Montero and pitcher Jake Arrieta. The Nats stole seven bases that night without being caught.
On Tuesday, Maddon acknowledged the threat.
"Of course, he's really good," Maddon said of Turner. "We saw that earlier in the year. Always the best method is to keep him off base. That's the best way to corral somebody like him.
"We've run into that with (Billy) Hamilton in our division (Cincinnati Reds). There are some guys that are difference makers when they get on the basepaths. He (Turner) is.
"We'll have our game plan. At the and of the day, again, you still want to be more concerned with the guy at the plate as opposed to the guys on base. I think the better baserunners split pitchers' concentration, and you don't want it split to the point where the hitter gains an advantage."