Well that’s twice. That’s twice this series the Nationals have landed a huge gut punch on the Cubs. In Game 2 of the NLDS series between the two teams, it came from Bryce Harper, with his booming home run that tied the game in the eighth inning. Wednesday it came from outfielder Michael Taylor.
Taylor’s home run, his first of the playoffs after 19 during the regular season, cut through the teeth of a stiff wind and turned a 1-0 nail-biter into a 5-0 formality. The big story of the game was Stephen Strasburg, who overcame mold problems (good lord Dusty) to pitch seven otherworldly innings. In 14 innings in this series, Strasburg has allowed zero earned runs, given up six hits and struck out 22.
The right-hander’s dominance and Taylor’s long ball set up a Game 5 Thursday in Washington on short rest. Here are the keys to the series-deciding game.
A matchup of aces
With so much good pitching on both sides, it seems like every game in this series has been a matchup of aces. Game 5 will be no exception, as the Nationals’ Gio Gonzalez takes on Kyle Hendricks. It will be a relief for the Cubs to see Gonzalez, who has been the only starter against whom they have had any success this series.
Still, despite the (relative) success the Cubs had against the left-hander, he is still a formidable opponent. Gonzalez went 15-9 with a 2.96 ERA this season while striking out nearly a batter per inning. In Game 2, he used his curveball to great effect against the Cubs’ hitters, who have been baffled by the Nationals’ off-speed pitches this series. The curveball did get Gonzalez in trouble once, however: when Anthony Rizzo cranked a two-run homer in the fourth to put the Cubs ahead 3-1.
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A lot will depend on how many of those curveballs Gonzalez throws. The Cubs will likely counter with a lineup of lefty-killers, including Albert Almora and Javier Baez, while Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward could be absent from the scorecard until the late innings.
Meanwhile, Hendricks will look to win his second series clincher in as many seasons after he beat the Dodgers in Game 6 of the NLCS last year. The right-hander was marvelous in Game 1, essentially using just a fastball and change-up to completely befuddle the Nationals over seven scoreless innings. He’s shown that the pressure won’t be an issue for him. If the Cubs can give him a run or two, Joe Maddon might let him go the distance.
Which Trea Turner?
The shortstop, in his first full season in the majors, has been instrumental to the Nationals’ offensive success this season. He hit .284/.338/.451 at the top of the lineup and stole 46 bases, adding 7.9 runs above average on the bases alone, according to Fangraphs. In the first three games of this series, however, Turner was a non-factor, going a miserable 0-for-12 with five strikeouts and no walks.
Wednesday, however, he turned his series around, going for 1-for-3 with a double and a pair of free passes. He also scored the game’s first run after he shot a ball into the left-field corner and an Addison Russell error later in the inning brought him home. He has game-changing speed on the bases and it will be imperative for the Cubs to neutralize him. Hendricks held him in check in Game 1 and that will be one of the pitcher’s most important tasks in Game 5.
Can the bullpen hold up?
The Cubs have allowed 12 runs in this series and nine have been charged to the bullpen. That tells you all you need to know about where this game will be decided. I wrote in this space before the series that Wade Davis and Brian Duensing have been the Cubs’ only consistent relievers this season. Well, Davis gave up Taylor’s grand slam, while Duensing, strangely, has not seen any action.
On the other hand, Carl Edwards Jr. has melted down twice in the series, while Pedro Strop and Mike Montgomery have both given up big hits, as well. The situation was so dire that Jon Lester was first out of the ‘pen in relief of Jake Arrieta on Wednesday. He pitched 3.2 desperately needed scoreless frames, but he won’t be around on Thursday. It’s possible Maddon will try something similar with John Lackey, who hasn’t appeared in this series yet, either. If Hendricks can’t go the distance, Maddon will have few good options beyond Duensing in the late innings, especially since Davis has already thrown three times in the series.
Before the series, I predicted the Nationals would win in five games, with the Cubs’ bullpen blowing up in at least one of the losses. I’ll stick with that for now, because Chicago’s offense has shown essentially nothing for two games.
Prediction: Nationals 4, Cubs 1