Cueto, Giants set for Game 1 of NLDS against Lester, Cubs
CHICAGO (AP) It's October in an even-numbered year, and the San Francisco Giants appear to be following their usual routine. The Chicago Cubs think their time is now.
Welcome to one intriguing NL Division Series.
Fresh off a dramatic wild-card victory in New York, the Giants were brimming with confidence when they arrived in Chicago on Thursday, albeit a bit late due to travel problems. Madison Bumgarner's four-hitter in Wednesday night's 3-0 victory against the Mets means he likely is pushed back until at least Game 3, but the Giants have 18-game winner Johnny Cueto ready to go for Friday night's series opener at Wrigley Field.
San Francisco stumbled in the second half of the season, then closed with five wins in six games to hold onto the second NL wild card. The Giants won the World Series in 2010, 2012 and 2014, and manager Bruce Bochy and company feel this is their part of the calendar- again.
''The moment won't bother these guys,'' Bochy said.
The Giants' sustained success is exactly what the Cubs are hoping to string together. It has been 108 years since the North Siders last won the World Series in 1908 - a number that will chase them around for as long as they stick around in this year's playoffs - but the Cubs made it to the NL Championship Series in 2015 and led the majors with 103 wins this season.
With a deep rotation and young sluggers in Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs are positioned to challenge for titles for years to come. They want to start right now, and the Giants are standing in their way.
''Every year they're in it. Every year they're contending. Every year they have a chance to win the World Series,'' said left-hander Jon Lester, who will start Game 1 for the Cubs. ''So I think that's what every team wants, not just us. I think they're an organization that a lot of teams look after to figure out how, why, how to get to that point.
''It's a model of consistency. It's impressive to see what they do.''
The Cubs clinched the NL Central title way back on Sept. 15, giving them a couple weeks to rest a few bumps and bruises and get their pitching staff ready for the playoffs. Even manager Joe Maddon is interested to see how they respond after four days off.
''Yeah, we're going to find out,'' Maddon said. ''I thought we handled the last couple days well.''
One of the key moments in Chicago's run to a wild card last season was a four-game sweep of San Francisco in August. If this year's seven-game season series is any indication of what the playoffs will look like, get ready for a string of tight, low-scoring matchups.
The final five games were decided by one run, including Chicago taking three of four at home last month. The Cubs won four times and outscored the Giants 23-17 this year, but one of their wins was an 8-1 victory.
''We've got our work cut out for us,'' said Jake Arrieta, who likely will match up with Bumgarner in Game 3. ''We've had a nice amount of time off. Now it's going to be nice to get back on the field and playing some meaningful games.''
Cueto made one start against Chicago this year, pitching seven solid innings in a no-decision on Sept. 4. The right-hander, who helped Kansas City win the World Series last season, is very familiar with the Cubs and Wrigley Field after spending the first 7 1/2 years of his major league career with Cincinnati.
''I like to pitch when it's a sold-out crowd with everybody cheering for me or against me, and that kind of motivates me,'' Cueto said through a translator.
Lester had one of his worst starts of the year at San Francisco on May 21, lasting just 2 2/3 innings in a 5-3 loss. He responded with five consecutive wins and went 15-2 with a 2.38 ERA in his final 23 starts.
After Lester makes his 17th career postseason appearance, major league ERA leader Kyle Hendricks gets the ball in Game 2, followed by Arrieta and John Lackey. The Giants had not set their series rotation, but Jeff Samardzija could pitch on Saturday night against the team that gave him his start in the majors.
The status of All-Star Eduardo Nunez also was unclear. Nunez missed the wild-card win with a strained right hamstring, and Conor Gillaspie delivered in his absence with a three-run homer in the ninth - just another example of San Francisco's even-year magic.
''Can he start tomorrow? No,'' Bochy said while providing an update on Nunez's status. ''But it's a five-game series, if we think he can help coming off the bench, maybe start the back end of this series then we probably would activate him.''
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap