Cubs (92-70) vs. Nationals (97-65) Preview
The Washington Nationals will host the Cubs on the shore of the Potomac River for Game 1 of the NLDS tonight. The Nats bring what is probably the best team they’ve ever had to the 2017 postseason, while the Cubs bring what is probably the second best team they’ve had in the last century.
Washington clinched the NL East (a.k.a. The Weakest Division in Baseball) Championship almost a full month ago, while the Cubs had to fight all the way into the last week of the season to secure their second consecutive NL Central Division Championship.
The Curse of Dusty© was felt in Washington this season with Adam Eaton lost for the season in April, and Tre Turner, Jayson Werth, and Bryce Harper all missing a significant number of games due to injury. Oddly enough though, the usual target of the curse, the pitching staff, was only grazed by it, and with the exception of Eaton, the Nationals now have their regular starting lineup back in order:
The Cubs will counter with:
I put this lineup in because the more I stared at the names, the less I could believe that Joe Maddon is going to leave either Ben Zobrist or Kyle Schwarber on the bench in a postseason game against a right-handed starter. And we saw last October what a difference maker Javier Baez was, so I don’t see him sitting either. I realize this puts Heyward in CF and Zobrist in RF, which is a recipe for a defensive train wreck, so I suppose some saner angel of Joe Maddon’s nature could put Jon Jay or *GASP* Albert Almora, Jr. in CF. I’m hoping the choice of Hendricks for Game 1 is a sign of better choices to come.
Though the Nationals’ slash lines look more impressive (particularly those four guys slugging over .500), they scored 819 runs this season, while the Cubs scored 822.
The Nationals have three starters who had a sub 3 ERA this season: Max Scherzer (.251), Stephen Strasburg (.252), and Gio Gonzalez (2.96). Given Dusty Baker’s love of overworking his starters, I expect to see only these three in a 5-game series. Scherzer tweaked his hamstring in his last postseason start, so he has been bumped back all the way to Game 3. Strasburg has been tabbed as the Game 1 starter and Gonzalez for Game 2.
The Nats improved rebuilt their bullpen at the trading deadline by trading for Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson, and Sean Doolittle. These three have formed a very effective 7-8-9 punch, as it were. They have posted 3.46, 1.37, and 2.40 ERAs respectively since joining the Nationals in July. The Nats don’t have much in the bullpen after these three, but the trend in postseason pitching management seems to be to use as few relievers as possible, so that might not be a huge issue, especially in a 5-game series with two travel days. If the Nats get 6 innings out of their starter, it would seem the Cubs have an uphill battle in front of them. However, if history has taught us anything it is that Dusty will leave some starter in three batters too long and will lose control of a pivotal game before tapping his bullpen. So we have that going for us.
I would say the Cubs have a slight advantage when it comes to defense. Daniel Murphy is sub-par at 2B, as is Jayson Werth in LF, but the other six are very solid. Similarly, the Cubs have 2 below average defenders in Kyle Schwarber and Ben Zobrist but are above average to exceptional everywhere else. Replace Zobrist with Jay or Almora, Jr. and the Cubs are clearly superior.
The Cubs also have the advantage in postseason experience and success. But the Nationals have a good amount of postseason experience of their own. The franchise, dating back to the Montreal Expos days, has never won a postseason series but, as we saw last year, that kind of thing can change in a hurry.
X-Factor #1-Nats: Tre Turner. When he gets on base, his speed is a game changer. He will run wild against Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta. Let’s hope they can keep him off the bases, or he’ll be on third base two pitches into Bryce Harper’s at-bat.
X-Factor #2-Nats: The Prime Time Duo. Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman have torn it up in the postseason, with slash lines of .351/.430/.662, and .357/.391/.571, respectively. I’m sure we all remember the havoc Murphy wreaked on the Cubs in the 2015 NLCS.
X-Factor-Cubs #1: Kyle Schwarber. I know I’m going to catch hell for this, and I can hear the cries of “small sample size” now, but Schwarbs has a postseason slash line of .364/.451/.727. I really think he is one of those Reggie Jackson-types who is at his best when the lights shine their brightest. Thed and Maddon have stuck by Kyle through his struggles this season, and I believe this is why.
X-Factor-Cubs #2: Kyle Hendricks. Hendricks was a beast in the NLCS and the World Series last year, giving up only two earned runs in 21 2/3 innings. And he has an exceptional pick-off move, which could be critical (see X-Factor #1 above). If he can carry the Cubs to a win tomorrow in D.C., it will put the Cubs firmly in the driver’s seat in this series.
When everything is tallied, we are looking at two teams with very strong offenses and pitching. The season series went 4-3 in Washington’s favor. I expect this series to be equally close.