Here we go. For the fourth time in six years our beloved Washington Nationals are National League East Champions, and ready for the postseason.
There are few things I love more than postseason baseball. Every out, at-bat, and pitch can drastically change a game. One minute you are up 3-0, and then, in the next minute, Didi Gregorius hits a three-run Home Run to send Yankee Stadium into a tizzy.
That is the postseason. Buckle up. It will be a wild ride!
By now, if you have read any of my other writing, you know my obsession with how cursed the city of DC has been when it comes to sports. It hurts. Just look at my Twitter and the first sentence you will read is “Suffering DC Sports fan”.
It is true. We cannot have nice things.
Which brings me to the Nats. For six years now they have been the cream of the crop in the National League. Established stars, rising stars, and everything in between. But here we are: still searching for that first postseason series win.
The defending World Series Champion Chicago Cubs, no strangers themselves to heartbreak and curses, come to town to start the five-game series, having played their best baseball over the second half of the season, having no shortage of confidence:
“I think you basically have a team that’s up and coming that’s really trying to make their mark for the first time in the postseason,” [Ben] Zobrist explained, “and you’ve got a team that’s proven that they’re exciting to watch and knows how to win like we did last year.”
There is a reason for Chicago’s confidence: they are the defending champs. The Nationals, despite having home field three separate times, have never won a series. Advantage Cubs.
So who wins this series? Well, it starts right where you think… with pitching.
The Pitching Duel
Here are the probable pitching match-ups to start the series:
Game 1: Kyle Hendricks vs. Stephen Strasburg
Game 2: Jon Lester vs. Gio Gonzalez
Game 3: Jose Quintana vs. Max Scherzer
If Washington wants to make noise in October, then it must start with their horses. Via ESPN:
Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez each finished with an ERA under 3.00, making Washington the first team with three qualified starters to do that since … the 2014 Nationals.
The Cubs, however, have a couple of horses of their own. Kyle Hendricks has emerged as the Cubs top dog this season. Cubs manager Joe Maddon went ahead and thumbed his nose at the Nationals by declaring that Hendricks “might be pitching as well as anybody in the National League right now,” thanks to Hedricks’ 2.19 ERA and 1.18 WHIP since the All-Star break.
Game 2 starter Jon Lester, owner of three World Series rings, has a career post season ERA of 2.63 over 133.2 innings. Add in a 1.02 WHIP and you have the résumé of one of the greatest to do it in October. That being said, Lester has been far from un-hittable entering the postseason. His 5-1 record in September is a bit misleading, considering all the run support he got (the Cubs averaged 10.5 runs per game in his six starts). Otherwise, he gave up an average of six hits per start, with an ERA of 4.18. He also never pitched more than six innings in any September start.
Since joining the Cubs in mid-July, Jose Quintana — who appears to be the starter for Game 3 — has posted a 3.74 ERA and 1.10 WHIP over 14 starts. But he’s never pitched in the postseason before.
It is no secret that pitching wins in the post season, and no team — including the Cubs — can match the combination of Strasburg and Scherzer. With Strasburg toeing the rubber for game 1 and Scherzer most likely going game 3, it is imperative that Washington starts fast.
Getting to the bullpen with a lead in this series will be key, but I chose to focus on the starters because that is where Washington has to win this series. If they can get seven innings out of Strasburg’s and Scherzer’s starts, and six good innings from Gonzalez, then you have to love their chances.
Most Interesting Match Up
Bryce Harper had 20 at-bats to get ready for the post-season. On top of that, he has seen plenty of live pitching this week leading up to the NLDS. With a line-up that finished the regular season on a tear, Harper’s bat become even more critical.
As Washington Post reporter Thomas Boswell points out, the Nationals are peaking at the right time:
“The Nats wanted their lineup to get hot at the right time. Well, look what just happened. Final-week OPS marks of Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, Michael A. Taylor and Jayson Werth were: 1.287, 1.207, 1.064, .995, .948 and .833”.
This is why Bryce is so critical. Whether he hits or not, Maddon will have to make a decision on whether or not to pitch to #34. A productive Harper takes a good, but streaky line-up to World Series caliber.
For those of you who are thinking that Harper hits when the lights are on, think again. The right fielder has 57 career post season at bats and an underwhelming .211 BA. While his OPS is a decent .827, Harper just has not shown up when needed.
If there was a time for the young star to break out, it’s now — and immediately. Hendricks is a righty; Harper crushed right-handed pitching this season to the tune of .322/.433/.654 with almost as many walks as strikeouts.
This is his chance to become the star DC craves. Hurt or healthy, Washington needs him to shine.
Bryce Harper is most certainly, at least in my eyes, the most interesting matchup for the Cubs. However, he is not the X-factor.
Stephen Strasburg made is MLB debut in 2010, with expectations to lead the Nationals on multiple postseason runs. As part of three playoff teams, Strasburg has yet to live up to the hype and has minimal impact in October.
#37 has made just one postseason start in his career. A loss to the San Francisco Giants in 2014. Just one start. ONE!
Not once in the three playoff runs has Washington had a healthy staff like they have now. If — and it is definitely a big “if” — the burly right-hander can give the Nationals a dominant start in Game 1, then the tone will be set.
Coming off a career best 2.52 ERA, Strasburg is ready for his official coming out party. In his final regular-season outing Friday, Strasburg dominated the Pittsburgh Pirates, giving up only two hits over 7⅔ shutout innings in Washington’s 6-1 victory. The performance, in which Strasburg retired the first 14 batters he faced and looked as dominant as he has all year, was merely the latest in a string of stellar starts.
Since returning from the disabled list Aug. 19, the 29-year-old has given up no earned runs in six of eight starts and has fanned 63 batters against only 10 walks. According to ESPN Stats & Information, his 0.86 ERA since the All-Star break is the second-lowest ever by a pitcher in the second half of a season (minimum of 10 starts)
But none of that means a hill of beans if he cannot replicate that when it counts the most: in the playoffs.
He is your X-factor.
We all know that I am not going to pick against Washington. That being said: the Nationals ARE the better team in this series. As Boswell noted, this is probably the best team the District has seen…
“this truly is as good as it gets. That’s not a guarantee of anything, except, probably, a whole lot of chilling thrills”.
It will be a wild ride over the next week. Full of hope, dreams, anxiety, and everything in between. That is what makes October great. That is what will make a postseason run that much sweeter. That is what will make this team great.
Nats in 4.