The Cubs and Nationals last met on Aug. 6 at Wrigley Field, the final of the seven games the two teams played in 2017. Washington won that game 9-4 behind an eighth-inning grand slam from Matt Wieters, taking the season series 4-3 in the process.
The two teams will meet again starting Friday night at Nationals Park for Game 1 of the NLDS. Chicago’s quest for a second straight championship begins in earnest at 7:30 p.m. EST at the Navy Yard. This is a clash of National League titans, two teams who seem poised for lengthy runs of success. One could imagine a number of these clashes in the playoffs over the next half-decade.
With the amount of star power on display on both sides, it should be a wildly compelling series that could turn on any number of factors. These are the three questions whose answers will play the largest role in determining which team moves on to the NLCS.
Whose hamstring is healthier?
This series could turn on two hamstrings: those of Jake Arrieta and Max Scherzer. Arrieta missed several starts in early September with a hamstring strain and in his most recent outing lasted just three innings while giving up five runs on six hits. The 2015 NL Cy Young winner was supposed to throw a simulated game on Wednesday, but the Cubs switched it to a bullpen session. Joe Maddon said of the switch, “It’s just an indication we don’t want to push him right now,” which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Later in the day, the Cubs announced the rotation for the series, listing Kyle Hendricks as the Game 1 starter and Arrieta fourth in line. This series is unlikely to end in a sweep, but it’s telling that Chicago didn’t guarantee Arrieta, who was the team’s best pitcher for a large chunk of the second half, a start in the series.
Scherzer, meanwhile, has been the best pitcher in the NL this side of Clayton Kershaw essentially since the day he put on a Nationals uniform. This season was featured typical dominance as he went 16-6 with a 2.51 ERA and a career-high 12.02 K/9. He topped 200 innings for the fifth straight season, to boot. In his final start of the season, however, he left after four innings with what the Nationals described as a hamstring “tweak.”
Washington announced Wednesday it’s likely to start co-ace Stephen Strasburg in Game 1 on Friday night. As for Scherzer, he insisted he’ll pitch in the series, but it’s not clear in which game that will be.
— Eddie Matz (@ESPNeddiematz) October 3, 2017
Overall, there is plenty of uncertainty surrounding these two pitchers. Whomever is healthier could hold the key to a series victory for his team.
Is Bryce Harper 100 percent?
Less than a week after the Cubs and Nationals last met, Bryce Harper slipped on first base and suffered a bone bruise in his knee. The injury caused the 2015 NL MVP to miss the next 42 games and sent shockwaves through the Nationals lineup. Before Harper’s injury, Washington boasted baseball’s third-best OPS at .811. Over the next 42 games, the team’s OPS dropped to just .691, 28th in baseball during that span.
Harper returned to the Nationals’ lineup just a week ago, without embarking on a minor league rehab assignment. In five games since his return, he’s shown considerable rust, batting just .167/.250/.167 without an extra-base hit, albeit in a small sample size. The left-handed slugger’s 19 percent swinging-strike rate is most concerning. Especially since it’s up considerably from the 12 percent rate he managed before his injury.
It’s possible that the rust will have worn off for Harper by the time the series begins on Friday. If not, however, there will be a hole in Washington’s lineup that creates an even slimmer margin of error for the pitching staff.
Is Stephen Strasburg ready for his moment?
Strasburg has already had a successful career by most measures. He’s won 15 games three times and has a career ERA just over 3.00 . Plus, he has totaled almost 30 WAR before his 30th birthday. Still, there was always a little something missing. His FIP was consistently lower than his ERA, denoting a pitcher whose stuff and peripherals outpaced his overall results year in and year out. It was never clear why Strasburg’s uber-elite arsenal generated “only” great results.
This season, has been different. The flame-throwing right-hander has been excellent all season and one of the best pitchers in baseball–possibly second only to Corey Kluber–since returning from a nerve injury in mid-August. In eight starts since Aug. 19, Strasburg has gone 5-1 with a microscopic 0.84 ERA, while averaging closer to seven innings per start than six. The biggest reason for his success has been an ability to keep the ball in the park. In 53.1 innings over that eight start stretch, Strasburg has allowed only one home run.
The Nationals’ Game 1 starter will be tested against a Cubs team that boasts six 20-homer players. For all his regular-season success, Strasburg has virtually no track record in the playoffs. He’s made only one career Postseason start, throwing five innings and taking a loss in the 2014 NLDS against San Francisco. He’ll take the mound with something to prove on Friday.
This is likely the most intriguing of the four division series match-ups. The Nationals had the better record, but Chicago was one of the hottest teams in baseball in August and September. The Cubs have proven their mettle in the playoffs over the last two years. The Nationals have flamed out in the NLDS in 2012, 2014, and 2016. Both teams are loaded with young talent, including the 2015 and 2016 NL MVPs, who happen to be childhood friends.
In the end, this series will likely come down to the Nationals’ ability to get into the Cubs bullpen, and, by contrast, how well the Cubs bridge the gap between their starting pitchers and closer Wade Davis. Outside of Brian Duensing, nearly every Cub reliever has struggled at one time or another this season and it’s difficult to know who will be trustworthy. Davis’ innings will likely increase, but it’s unclear whether he can handle the immense workload that Aroldis Chapman shouldered a season ago. I’m betting the Cubs blow a late lead in at least one game.
Prediction: Nationals in 5