RECORDS: Cubs 92-70 Nationals 97-65
GAMETIMES: 6:30 Friday, 4:30 Saturday, Game 3 Monday, Game 4 Tuesday*, Game 5 Thursday*
TV: All on TBS, god help us
BASEBALL CAPITALS: Federal Baseball
? v. Arrieta
And so here we are. The champ is here to defend their title, and all the angst and frustration over the season’s first half are long gone. Meaningless, at this point. It’s just 11 little steps to be the first team to repeat in 17 years. Just 11 little steps. No big deal, right?
This matchup has felt inevitable for a couple years. It was obvious both teams would be lingering around the National League playoff picture for a few years, at least until Harper fucks off to New York after next season, once the Cubs went nuclear in August of ’15. The storyline of Bryant-Harper was obviously always going to fold into a playoff matchup, because it just had to. There are others of course, with Dusty Baker now in the other dugout in a playoff series after so many blamed him (including me) for the heartache of 2003. The Nationals attempting to win their first ever series, and having to do it against what is now the most playoff-tested and passed team in the field (wow, was that satisfying to write). The Cubs have four series wins in the past two years, no one else in the playoffs has more than two.
So now that it’s here, it’s a bit of a shame that the question of health hangs over it as the most important component. Or close to it. We still don’t know what Max Scherzer has and when he will make his appearance. The Cubs don’t know if Jake Arrieta can make his Game 4 start, and there probably isn’t a Cubs fan out there who’s convinced Jon Lester has the full arsenal either. There’s also Bryce Harper not having played a full game since August 11th. But the baseball season is long, and attrition and depth are certainly factors in who gets to have the final champagne party come later this month/early next month.
Sadly for the Cubs, the Nationals are probably a touch more buttressed for their problems than the Cubs might be. If they only get to throw Scherzer once, they still get to throw Strasburg twice, and still yet might get to throw them both twice if they have to (though Dusty tossing Strasburg out on three days’ rest for a possible Game 4 would certainly have Cubs fans nodding with a knowing grin). Strasburg has been essentially Scherzer’s equal all season, and even better than him the last two months of the season when he was essentially unhittable. As we noted in our pitcher preview, Strasburg has changed the repertoire this year, with less fastballs and more changes and curves. Given some in the lineup’s propensity to chase high-fastballs (looking at you, Kyle, Javy, Addison, Ian), don’t expect Strasburg to limit them today, however. The Cubs will counter with Kyle Hendricks, who has been dynamite the past two months as well. Both teams are starting this off with their hottest pitcher.
From there, it’s hard to navigate. Without a fully healthy Harper, the Nats weren’t a terribly good offensive team. Yet with a fully healthy Murphy, Rendon, Zimmerman, and Turner being a problem on the bases that seems more a result of variance than deficiency. The Cubs lineup has the potential to be longer than the Nats, as Werth, Wieters, and Taylor haven’t been good lately, and Werth is basically a smoldering husk at this point. The Cubs, on a good day, can go 1-8. But they can also have Heyward, a still-ouchy Contreras, Jay, Addy, and Javy be awfully easy outs at times. The Cubs lineup could be anything in this series and beyond if they get there.
And that’s the exciting and yet scary part. Joe Maddon has so many moving parts and options for his lineup you wonder if he won’t get a little too cute. If you’re going simply by recency bias, then Jay really shouldn’t play as he hasn’t been very good at the plate for a while. Then again, neither has Zobrist and you can pretty much bank on him playing somewhere. Almora has been the Cubs best hitter in September but he’s not getting tossed out against Strasburg for sure. Schwarber put up a 140 wRC+ in the season’s last month but does Joe trust him here? Or bank on his previous October heroics? The questions are dizzying. There don’t seem to be any completely wrong answers, but…
And that’s before we get to the question marks in the rotation. Lester’s last two or three starts were the kind that would make you go, “Ehhhhh, ok?”And you can’t go against this lineup with 75% of your stuff, whatever Harper’s condition. Arrieta is a huge question mark, and Quintana will be making his playoff debut. At least on the other side, Gonzalez has been near-gasoline to close out the season, and if they have to turn to Roark or (ohpleaseohpleaseohplease) Edwin Jackson at any point, it’s certainly advantage Cubs. But this being playoff baseball, a masterpiece or a complete disaster of a start can come from just about anywhere.
If Dusty is aggressive, it would seem his biggest advantage is in the pen. He can roll out Madson-Kintzler-Doolittle and get anywhere from 9-15 outs from just that. Throw in Albers and Romero, and it’s a lot of options. On the other side, there are days when Edwards-Strop-Montgomery can look impenetrable before getting to Weigh Davis. There are other days where they all go to the zoo. I’m not a huge fan of picking Leonys Martin over Hector Rondon, but rarely are series decided on your 12th pitcher (though ask the Giants last year about that). If Justin Wilson can find the plate, then the Cubs potentially have enough arms to be just as dominant as the Nats. They also have the potential to be a complete high-school-lab-experiment.
Add it all up, and this one feels like it’s going the route. There just isn’t a lot to split these teams, especially given the iffy health in spots.
The table is set…
IT’S TIME TO PLAY THE GAME