Cubs vs. Nationals Series Preview and MLB Playoff Picks

The Washington Nationals have Bryce Harper back in the lineup, but questions about Max Scherzer’s health now threaten their chances of their first-ever postseason series win.

The Chicago Cubs, of course, have the postseason experience edge over the Nats. Nevertheless, this figures to be a tightly contested series.

Both of these teams ended the year playing great baseball, but Washington will kick off the series at home. Can the Nationals use that to their advantage? They were actually a better road team on the season.

Starting Pitching Matchups

Last Saturday, Max Scherzer exited his final start of the regular season with what was reported as a hamstring cramp. Now, the right-hander doesn’t look like he’ll start Game 1 of the NLDS. The reigning Cy Young Award winner has insisted he will pitch in the series, but when? On the other side, Cubs ace Jake Arrieta is also dealing with an injury. He’s not slated to pitch until the series heads to Wrigley Field. Right now, he’d get the ball in Game 4.

As for Scherzer, the plan hasn’t been announced. He could wait until Game 3 or get the nod in Game 2. Either way, Stephen Strasburg will get the start in Game 1.

While Scherzer is the ace, Strasburg is not a bad alternate. In 28 starts, the right-hander went 15-4 with a 2.52 ERA and 1.015 WHIP. His FIP led the NL at 2.72 as he did well limiting the home run while also boasting a 4.34 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Strasburg’s finish to the regular season was nothing short of phenomenal. In his last 10 starts, he went 6-1 with a 0.86 ERA and 0.814 WHIP. He allowed only seven runs—six earned—in 62.2 innings while striking out 76.

This version of Strasburg is who Washington thought it drafted in 2009, and this is the version the Nats need him to be on Friday.

Matching up against Strasburg will be Kyle Hendricks, who has won over Joe Maddon despite the manager being skeptical of his ability to go deep in the game even last year after he posted a 2.13 ERA. Nevertheless, he went out and pitched to a 1.42 ERA in five outings during last year’s World Series run.

This time around, Maddon has spoken highly of Hendricks and noted he’s been throwing the ball better than ever.
Injuries stole a few starts from Hendricks, but it was overall another strong season for the righty, who led the team with a 3.03 ERA. He ended up 7-5 with a 1.189 WHIP in 24 starts. With strikeouts and velocity ever increasing in baseball, his rates remain comparatively low. Hendricks thrives on weak contact and excellent command.

In his last 13 starts, he pitched to a 2.19 ERA—1.93 in July, 2.41 in August and 2.01 in September. He hasn’t averaged too many innings per start, but he does consistently go at least six frames.

Strasburg is the more dominant Game 1 starter, but Hendricks should keep the Cubs in the game. Unfortunately, he doesn’t typically get much support. Chicago is only 12-12 in his starts.

The rest of Chicago’s rotation will shake out as follows: Lester is slated to start Game 2 with Jose Quintana starting Game 3 and Arrieta marked for Game 4. In the event of a Game 5, either Hendricks or Lester would be available to throw.

Lester is typically the guy to throw a Game 1, but he was not good this year. He went 13-8 with a 4.33 ERA and 1.323 WHIP. This was the lefty’s worst season since 2012.

While the overall season stats are disappointing, Lester is an experienced postseason pitcher, going 9-7 with a 2.63 ERA in 22 postseason appearances. That’s a plus for him, but he’s still a starter with issues throwing to first and one coming off a 5.51 ERA in his last 10 starts. Interestingly, despite the poor ERA and inflated WHIP, he was still 5-2 in those 10 starts.

In Game 3, Quintana will be making his postseason debut. He went 11-11 with a 4.15 ERA split between the two Chicago teams. He certainly was energized by the trade to the Cubs and pitched better than he did with the White Sox. He went 7-3 with a 3.74 ERA in 14 games and struck out 98 batters in 84.1 innings with the Cubbies.

Quintana is one start removed from a complete game shutout against the Brewers, but he allowed four runs in 4.2 innings against the Reds in his last start.

As for Arrieta, the righty being pushed back to Game 4 is a significant blow. His record and ERA regressed again, but he ended 14-10 with a 3.53 ERA. His first half really skewed the numbers, Arrieta looked like the Arrieta of old—when healthy—in the second half. Over his last 12 starts, he went 6-3 with a 2.28 ERA and 1.090 WHIP. His hits allowed plummeted, which has been the trademark for the ace.

If Game 4 turns into a do-or-die for the Cubs, they could have a worse option on the bump. He had ice in his veins in the do-or-die Wild Card Game in 2015, throwing a complete game shutout. He was nails in two World Series starts last year, too.

For the Nationals, the rotation behind Strasburg is still up for debate. Scherzer will get a start and Gio Gonzalez will as well, but who goes in Game 4? Will Washington throw Strasburg on three days of rest, or will Tanner Roark take the ball? If Scherzer pitches Game 2, we could still see two starts apiece from Strasburg and Scherzer if the series goes five.

As long as Scherzer is reasonably healthy he should give the Nationals an advantage regardless of when he throws. He finished the season 16-6 with a 2.51 ERA and 0.902 WHIP in 200.2 innings. He struck out 268 batters and even improved his home run rate against. He allowed a league-leading 31 homers last year but dropped that figure by nine in a 2017 campaign that set the all-time record for most homers in an MLB season.

Gonzalez has had a very strong year himself. He went 15-9 with a 2.96 ERA and 1.179 WHIP. He led the Nationals in innings with 201. Those numbers should encourage Nats backers, but he lost three of his last four games, including the season finale when he allowed six runs in 4.1 innings to the Pirates. Over his last four starts, he allowed 16 runs, 22 hits and 10 walks in 21.1 innings. That’s not a positive trend.

Roark, in midst of a season filled with struggles, is trending better. He regressed some in September, but he still went 7-5 with a 3.90 ERA in the second half.

Positional Breakdown

Harper played only five games at the end of the year after missing a month and a half. He went 3-for-18 with seven strikeouts and no extra-base hits. His timing will be worth keeping an eye on. However, he did go 2-for-4 with a walk in the season finale.

If Harper is even mostly back, this becomes one deep lineup. When on the field, the right fielder had a .319/.413/.595 slash line. He deepens a middle of the order for the Nationals that also has Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon all hitting over .300 and combining for 84 home runs and 301 RBIs.

On top of those four, the Nationals have Trea Turner swinging well and providing speed at the top of the order with his 46 steals in 98 games. Howie Kendrick was a huge late-season add, too. In 52 games, he hit .293 and provided quality at-bats each time up.

Washington’s offense had gone cold in the last month without Harper. His return will hopefully spark the team that has scored the third-most runs in the NL in 2017. Ahead of Washington in runs scored were the Colorado Rockies and the Cubs.

Chicago didn’t run away with the NL Central like it did last year and struggled early in the campaign. The lackluster first half helped to hide just how good this team was post All-Star break. In the second half, the Cubs posted a .662 winning percentage. The pitching got better, but the hitting dominated. No team in baseball scored more second-half runs than the Cubs. In fact, Chicago outscored the next-highest scoring NL team by 55 runs.

Kyle Schwarber regained his confidence in Triple-A and ended up giving the team 30 jacks. Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant again delivered elite numbers with a 132 and 143 OPS+, respectively.

Bullpen Analysis

For Washington, it’s been a tale of two bullpens. The Nationals lost a number of games in the first half due to the lack of quality in the bullpen. Matt Albers was throwing well, but he was miscast late in the game. The other arms like Shawn Kelley weren’t getting the job done deep into the contest either.

Midseason, general manager Mike Rizzo remade the ‘pen, effectively adding three closers in Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler. Washington now needs just six innings from the rotation before pulling a Royals and locking down the last three frames. The Nats have a rotation more than capable of doing just that.

On the other side, the Cubs are sending John Lackey to the ‘pen as a guy that can provide length if needed. Then they have Wade Davis, Carl Edwards Jr., Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon throwing well to slam the door closed.

Quick Pick: Nationals over Cubs in Five

Look for this series to go the distance. The Nationals and Cubs are evenly matched, and they are arguably the two best teams in the National League despite the record of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The health and status of Scherzer and Arrieta are the true wild cards. If Scherzer goes in Game 2 and is available for Game 5, Washington has the edge. If it turns out he’s in worse shape than the team is letting on, then Chicago could push past the Nationals, leaving them once again without a series win. At the plate and in the bullpen, these two teams are stacked. It’s the rotation where the Nats edge out the defending champs.

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