Willson Contreras could be the key to the Cubs offense with Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo hitting ahead of him. The Cubs rediscovered their knack for working deep counts in the final 2 1/2 weeks of the regular season, and that could serve them well against a Nationals pitching staff that has squandered chances to get out of the first round of the playoffs. For all the talk about the Cubs overcoming injuries, the Nationals took two of three at Wrigley Field on Aug. 4-6 without speedster Trea Turner. Despite the speculation over the health of Harper, Anthony Rendon remains a multi-purpose threat with his batting average, run production and ability to take the extra base. Thanks to Daniel Murphy and Rendon, the Nationals lead the league with a .290 batting average with runners in scoring position. Edge: Nationals.
The Cubs allowed three unearned runs in the final month. Despite a shaky defensive season, Bryant committed only two errors at third in the final five weeks. Don't be surprised if right fielder Jason Heyward starts in or plays center field on occasion. Contreras will be faced with the task of keeping the pitchers focused while harnessing Turner. Ben Zobrist will shift between left and occasionally right fields. The left side of the Nationals' infield is air-tight, but the same can't be said for the right side. It took a few months for catcher Matt Wieters to become acclimated to the Nationals' pitching staff, but the Cubs could test him despite not being known as a running team. Edge: Cubs.
Jon Lester's last two starts answered doubts about the durability of his left shoulder, and a veteran scout noted the Nationals' right and left-handed batters could be in trouble if Lester replicates his last regular-season start on Saturday in Game 2. Kyle Hendricks remains the Cubs' surest bet because of his overall sharpness since returning in late July from a finger injury. Left-hander Jose Quintana gets his long-awaited goal to pitch in the playoffs against a formidable lineup. John Lackey was pounded in his only start at National Park on June 28, but he and left-hander Mike Montgomery are the lone options if Jake Arrieta's right hamstring is too tender for him to start. Max Scherzer is as dominant as any starting pitcher in the league, but he will need to be economically effective against a Cubs lineup determined to drive up his pitch count, esspecially with his ailing hamstring. Stephen Strasburg struck out 204 in 1751/3 innings, including a 13-strikeout performance in the 8-4 victory over Lackey and the Cubs. Strasburg is the likely Game 1 starter as Scherzer recuperates from his hamstring cramp. Left-hander Gio Gonzalez became a 15-game winner by throwing his curveball more effectively. Left-handers batted .283 against Tanner Roark, which could put the Nationals in a tough spot if they trail 2-1 in the series. Edge: Nationals.
The revolving door of relievers helped the Cubs get across the finish line quickly enough to rest their weary arms. Carl Edwards Jr. could be the most important reliever in this series, with his ability to retire left-handed hitters (.119 batting average against) as well as right-handers (.148). Nevertheless, left-handers Brian Duensing, Mike Montgomery and Justin Wilson will be used to neutralize left-handed hitters Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy. After a rough August, Pedro Strop wasn't charged with a run in September but walked five in 92/3 innings. There's no way Wade Davis should need to pitch more than an inning in any game as he did last month. The trade deadline acquisitions of left-hander Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler gave the Nationals one of the most formidable bullpens. Doolittle has limited right-handers to a .196 batting average. At 37, Madson's fastball has been clocked at 97 mph. Oliver Perez has improved considerably in the second half but remains exclusively a middle relief specialist. Matt Albers (0.8555 WHIP) was one of the biggest under-the-radar acquisitions by the Nationals. Edge: Nationals.
Critics still point to Joe Maddon's micromanaging of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series and his multiple lineups, but he had little choice in the latter matter because personnel and the need to develop youngsters such as Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. properly. The Bill James Handbook 2016 ranked Dusty Baker among the top 10 managers of all-time in constructing and handling bullpens, and that strength was bolstered with the mid-season relief help. There has been overwhelming local support for Baker to receive an extension, but his players' performance will dictate his case to a bottom-line ownership. Edge: Cubs.