NLDS Notebook: Cubs vs. Nationals
Chicago wins the series, 3-2.
National League Division Series, Game 5
Chicago Cubs vs. Washington Nationals
Oct. 12, 2017
Strasburg sickens Cubs
As it turned out, it was Stephen Strasburg who left the Cubs feeling listless in Game 4. The 29-year-old Strasburg, a former No. 1 overall draft pick (2009) and the Nats' best pitcher in recent weeks, had announced on Tuesday night that he had flu symptoms and probably wouldn't make his scheduled start. The possibility that their best pitcher may not pitch an elimination game sent shockwaves through Nats Nation, but a quick recovery and an amazing performance turned pending gloom to glory. The 6-foot-4 right-hander from San Diego explained afterward that the antibiotics he was first given had little effect, so team physicians switched medications and he settled into his room at the team hotel early to get rest. “Woke up (Wednesday), and you know, I wouldn't say I felt like great but, you know, I felt like I was better than what I was the day before,” he said. “And so games like this, you have to go out there and give it everything you have, whatever it is. So I called Mad Dog (pitching coach Mike Maddux) in the morning and said, "Just give me the ball." Strasburg got the ball and struck out 12 Cubs batters and allowed just three hits over seven innings and 106 pitches and left the Nats' with a one-run lead. He suggested the illness might have helped him control his adrenaline. “I think it probably was a blessing in disguise,” said Strasburg, who relied on his trademark change-up, mixing it with a fastball that reached 96 mph. “I think my energy wasn't really like through the roof, so I think it was easier for me to manage it.” Now, he's struck out 22 batter over 14 innings this postseason without allowing an earned run, including pitching in the rain and cold in Game 4 when he probably should have been in bed under the covers sipping chicken soup. “His face was about the color of that carpet,” Bryce Harper said. “I think for him to be able to cowboy up and do his job shows how much of a great teammate he is.”
Michael Taylor began the season as the Nats' fourth outfielder, worked himself into a starting role, had his best regular season and then Wednesday night in Game 4 got the biggest hit of his life. The 26-year-old Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native's eighth-inning grand slam in heavy rain and gale-force winds against Cubs closer Wade Davis put an exclamation point in the Nats' 5-0 victory to force a deciding Game 5 back in Washington, D.C. “I was kind of numb, just running around the bases,” Taylor said. “Honestly, I didn't think it was going to get out the way the wind was blowing in.” The ball barely got out, eluding Cubs right fielder Ian Happ and landing in the basket that surrounds the outfield wall at Wrigley. “That took a man to hit that through that wind tonight,” second baseman Daniel Murphy said. “To leave the way he did, that just shows you how far and how hard he hit that ball,” outfielder Jayson Werth added. “On a different day, with a different wind, I would like to have seen how far that ball would have went.” While the grand slam was the turning point in the game if not the Division Series, this season and postseason may one day be considered the turning point in Taylor's career. After Adam Eaton blew out his knee in April, Taylor seized on the opportunity, batting .271 (40 points higher than his career average) with 19 homers and 17 stolen bases. Manager Dusty Baker believes he has Gold Glove potential as a center fielder, too. “Some guys, it takes a year or two to learn. Sometimes it takes three or four years to learn,” veteran first baseman Ryan Zimmerman told the Washington Post. “But this year it seems like he's been able to kind of just slow everything down a little bit and let his talents take over. His tools and what he can do on the baseball field, there's not many guys who can do all five like he can.”
Survive and advance
After a soggy Game 4 in Chicago, the teams returned to Washington for the deciding Game 5. Last year, the Cubs were 3-1 in closeout games, with the lone loss coming in Game 3 in the Division Series against San Francisco. Kyle Hendricks was projected to get the start. In Game 1, he threw seven shutout innings of two-hit baseball. "He's not shy of being in these situations,'' Anthony Rizzo told MLB.com. “We have to go out and score some runs for him, plain and simple. He'll be ready to go, we'll be ready to go, and we go from there.'' The Cubs will also have starter José Quintana available out of the bullpen. For the first time in over 100 years, the Cubs do have history on their side, as the team navigated all elimination games last year. “We've been playing as well as we have all year,” manager Joe Maddon said. “And it's much more reminiscent of last year and the year before.”
No offense but ...
Where will the offense come from in Game 5? If the final game of the series is anything like the first four, chances are there won't be much of it. As a team, Washington has hit .130, with 16 total hits. The Cubs have fared better – but only marginally. Chicago has hit .159, good for 18 total team hits. What's the recipe for the Cubs to put up crooked numbers in Game 5? “We have to force their pitchers in the zone more consistently and not miss your pitch when you see it. It really comes down to that,” manager Joe Maddon said after Game 4. “It's been a really interesting series. Both teams have reflected one other pretty closely.”
Nats' probable pitcher? Everybody
Everybody on their staff but Stephen Strasburg will be available to pitch in the deciding Game 5 of the Division Series on Thursday night in Washington, D.C., but while manager Dusty Baker didn't announce his starter, the likely choice seemed to be Gio Gonzalez because he would be pitching on normal rest and coming off a solid start in the second game of the five-game series. Gonzalez, a left-hander who went 15-9 with a 2.96 ERA this season, allowed three runs on three hits in five innings and wasn't involved in the decision in his first postseason start this year. Right-hander Tanner Roark, who had been slated to pitch Game 4 until Strasburg became available, was also considered a possible starter. Starter Max Scherzer will also be available as well as the entire bullpen: Matt Albers, Sean Doollittle, Brandon Kintzler, Oliver Perez. All hands on deck.
National League Division Series, Game 4
Chicago Cubs vs. Washington Nationals
Oct. 11, 2017
Arrieta tries to close it out
Manager Joe Maddon called on veteran Jake Arrieta to try to close out the Cubs' Division Series against the Nats in Game 4 on Tuesday. The 31-year old went 14-10 with a 3.53 ERA in 30 starts during the regular season. Since the start of the 2015 season, Arrieta has 54 wins, the most in the majors. In his postseason career, Arrieta has gone 4-2 with a 3.64 ERA in seven starts. He played a big part in the Cubs' 2016 World Series championship, winning both his starts in the World Series. “This entire year has been incredible,” Arrieta said on Monday. “Being able to get to the postseason three years in a row in this organization. From where we came when I got over here in 2013, has been tremendous, and I've met some incredible people.” Arrieta will become a free agent at the end of the season.
In a series that has been mostly void of offense – the two teams have combined to score 15 runs in three games – the bullpens have played a pivotal role the first three games. For Chicago, a steadying hand at the back of the ‘pen has already closed out both Cubs' victories. Wade Davis, in his first season with the club, converted a franchise-record 32 straight saves during the regular season. He has a current 11-game postseason scoreless streak, dating back to Oct. 29, 2014, with the Royals. Over the stretch, Davis has pitched 14 2/3 clean innings, giving up seven hits and striking out 23 batters with just three walks. In 25 postseason games (including one start in 2010), Davis has a 0.79 ERA and is 4-0 with six saves, while allowing opponents to hit just .182. To put his minuscule ERA in perspective: only one person has a lower postseason ERA in a career – Marinao Rivera with a 0.70 ERA in 141 innings. Since 2014, Davis has retired 40 of 97 batters faced via strikeout – 41.2 percent of opponents. The 32-year old who is a three-time All-Star has brought a ton of postseason experience to a young Cubs' bullpen.
Albert Almora Jr., the second-youngest player on the Cubs' postseason roster, is already getting a reputation as a player who comes through when stakes are highest. The former first-round draft pick from Hialeah, Fla., entered Game 7 of the 2016 World Series as a pinch runner in the top of the 10th, raced to second on a fly ball and came around to score one of the most memorable runs in Cub history on Ben Zobrist's double. Then in the seventh inning of Game 3 of the Division Series on Monday night, Almora tied the game at one with a pinch-hit single. "I'm just not trying to do too much in that situation,” he said. Pressed a little more about his ability to perform in the clutch, the 23-year-old center fielder told the Chicago Tribune, "That's a tough question just because I'm such an emotional player — I give 110 percent every game. I run into walls more than I should, (and) that just shows you the type of love that I have for this game and the love I have for my teammates. I always want to help everybody out. So I don't think I change much. The celebration changes a little bit after things happen and go our way, but besides that, nothing crazy." Almora started 65 games for the Cubs this season and batted .298 with eight homers, overall, and .341 with 10 RBIs as a pinch hitter.
The Nationals were counting on right-hander Tanner Roark, who grew up in Wilmington, Ill., about 60 miles southwest of Chicago, to help them stave off elimination in Game 4 on Tuesday at Wrigley Field. And, yes, like his mom and siblings, Roark was a Cubs fan while growing up there and occasionally took the hour-long drive up I-55 to see them play. Roark, who was 13-11 with a 4.67 ERA in his fifth MLB season, liked the idea of making a postseason start at the comfy confines. “It's pretty surreal to pitch in Wrigley,” he said. “I just think the atmosphere around here is amazing and to pitch here at Wrigley, and to hear the fans; I know they are going to be crazy.” The crowd energy was something Tanner planned to use to his advantage. “You've got to channel it and know how to use it,” he said. “Hold the nerves in, hold the anxiousness and all that stuff in, and just let it come and let it happen.” On the mound, Tanner planned to use his five-pitch assortment that includes a heavy sinker to tame the Cubs and the crowd: “Just do what I do best, and try to keep them quiet,” he said.
Jayson Werth is his generation's representative in the family business, which is baseball. His grandfather, Ducky Schofield, played in the majors for 19 years as an infielder with seven teams. His uncle Dick Schofield was a sure-handed shortstop who played for 14 years. His stepfather, Dennis Werth, played four years in the majors. Ducky Schofield earned a World Series ring with the 1960 Pirates, Dick Schofield got his with the 1993 Blue Jays and Werth was an important part of the 2008 Phillies championship team. Before she became one of his early batting practice pitchers, Werth's mom, Kim Schofield Werth, was a sprinter and long jumper who competed in the 1976 Olympic trials. Dennis Werth told the Chicago Tribune that he likes the role his stepson has taken as elder statesman in the Nats' clubhouse. "Jayson's kind of the ramrod of that team, the clubhouse president. I think he keeps everybody in line. For the most part, he's highly respected. It's kind of a neat deal." Meanwhile, his grandfather's loyalties seem a bit torn. "I hate to say it, but I think I've become a Cubs fan," 82-year-old Ducky Schofield said. "I watch their games on TV all the time. I like (Anthony) Rizzo of course, and (Kris) Bryant, and (Javier) Baez is probably the best infielder in the league. But I hope Jayson does well."
National League Division Series, Game 3
Chicago Cubs vs. Washington Nationals
Oct. 9, 2017
Home vs. Road
The best-of-five series moved to Wrigley Field in Chicago for Game 3 on Monday. The Cubs won 48 games at home this season, third best in the NL, but the Nats had the most road wins (50) in the league and they won two of three games in Chicago in August.
Rested & Ready
This afternoon, the reigning Cy Young Award winner and a leading contender for another one this season, Max Scherzer will get his first start of the postseason when he tries to help the Nats move ahead in their division series with the Cubs. Scherzer, 33, went 16-8 with a 2.51 ERA over 200 2/3 innings while leading the NL in strikeouts (263) for the second consecutive season and WHIP (0.90). He has not pitched in nine days since “tweaking” a hamstring in his final regular season start and has not had an outing with over 90 pitches for three weeks. The right-hander put his time on the mend to good use, by identifying a weakness in his hamstring, strengthening it with exercise and treatment. He threw and sprinted in the outfield at Wrigley Field on Sunday before pronouncing himself ready. “I've kind of been dealing with this stuff all year long,” Scherzer said. “So this isn't anything new, you know, dealing with little ailments. Look, this little ailment, I needed a couple extra days to get this right. I feel I've done everything I can to put the strength in the leg that I need to and I feel like I'm good to go … Hey, we're in the playoffs. Every game is a must-win. This is going to be a crazy atmosphere here at Wrigley. I can't wait to toe the rubber.”
Quintana makes postseason debut
This is why the Cubs acquired José Quintana. In mid-July when they traded four prospects to the White Sox for the 28-year-old Colombian left-hander, the club envisioned having an additional frontline starter available for a pivotal postseason game. Quintana just needed to hop on a Red Line train for the 11-mile ride from Guaranteed Rate Field to West Addison Street and Wrigley Field. On Monday afternoon, Quintana will make his postseason debut after six seasons in the majors. “It's a huge game for me. I think it's a huge opportunity, too. And for the first time, you know, I'm really excited to get this opportunity, and I appreciate that,” Quintana said on Sunday. “It's the first time for me, but I'd just rather do my job and try to go as long as I can.” Since joining the Cubs the lefty has gone 7-3 with a 3.74 ERA. Quintana broke the 200-strikeout mark for the first time in his career, ranking 13th in baseball with 207 Ks.
R is for Rizzo in October
Anthony Rizzo apparently enjoys the biggest stage in baseball. One of three finalists for Marvin Miller Man of the Year, Rizzo extended his postseason hitting streak to eight games on Saturday in Game 2. Over the postseason streak – the longest of any active player – he is hitting .414 with two home runs and nine RBIs. Rizzo led the Cubs this season in home runs (32) and RBIs (109), while cutting down on his strikeout numbers. On the postseason, Rizzo said: "The more you get in these situations, the better you feel.” The 28-year old now holds the Cubs' postseason franchise records with six home runs and 16 RBIs.
National League Division Series, Game 2
Chicago Cubs vs. Washington Nationals
Oct. 7, 2017
Harper, Zimmerman jump start Nats offense
Having been shutout 3-0 in Game 1 and held to four hits over their first 16 innings in their Division Series against the defending World Series champion Cubs, the Nationals appeared on the brink of a quick exit. Losing 3-1 in the eighth inning of Game 2 and prospects for a postseason run of any sorts getting bleaker with each at bat, they finally busted out with five runs on four hits. Bryce Harper hit a titanic two-run homer into the upper deck in right field to tie the game and Ryan Zimmerman launched a three-run homer moments later as the Nats won 8-3 to tie the series. “Sometimes it takes kind of just one hit for everyone to exhale. Everyone who has played baseball has been there before. Baseball is contagious,” said Zimmerman, who is a finalist for the 2017 Players Choice Award as the NL”'s Comeback Player. Harper, who is just getting back to where he wants to be following a late-season ankle injury, seemed super confident, even for him. “The train's coming,” Harper said. “We're a great team.”
Wieters working wonders
The Nats' pitching staff has thrived under pitching coach Mike Maddux and catcher Matt Wieters, whom the club acquired in the middle of spring training. The staff has been more aggressive in the zone and changing speeds more often. Said Game 2 starter Gio Gonzalez: “I've learned this year with working with Matt and seeing our starting rotation, how right off the bat, they are attacking the hitters, they are attacking the strike zone, and you know, they are going out there and giving themselves innings. That's why they are going deep in the game.” Wieters, who tailed off offensively this season, provided some insight into the Nats' thinking in a September interview with the Washington Post. “The way the game is kind of going now, everybody wants to hit fastballs,” Wieters said. “It used to be that breaking balls were the power pitches because guys would hit hangers out of the park. Now it's kind of turning where hitters are wanting to hit the fastball for power and home runs. You're seeing a lot of backwards pitching where you're seeing a lot of off-speed in fastball counts.” Part of the reason the staff trusts Wieters so much is because of the work he puts in. “Matt's the first guy here, and I think him and some of the coaching staff is always in the video room doing their homework and studying hitters. He understands certain situations.”
Teammates pick up Rendon
Anthony Rendon was a key to the Nats' resurgence this season this season, offensively and defensively, so it took everyone a little by surprise when he made an uncharacteristic error on Javier Baez's routine groundball to open the gate to the Dodgers scoring in the sixth inning in NLDS Game 1. The 27-year-old from Houston looked in his glove and the ball wasn't there. “It's an error,” Rendon said, taking ownership. “It's like when you have a car accident. It's not the car's purpose. It's a mistake. We're human. It's definitely tough because (Stephen) Strasburg was pitching his tail off and they happened to get two hits after that. So it's never fun.” But Rendon batted .301 with 25 homers and a .301 average (both career highs) and it was his first error since July 22 and only his seventh all season, so his manager and teammates shrugged it off. "I'll still want the ball hit to him tomorrow," catcher Matt Wieters said. "The bigger problem is that we couldn't put any runs up." Daniel Murphy said, “He's elite over there. He's been unbelievable all year.”
Now 31 and with 10 major-league seasons of experience, Gio Gonzalez took the news that he'd
been moved up to Game 2 of the NLDS with Chicago in stride. “I've got to prepare myself either way, whether I'm at home or on the road,” he said. “You've still got to face a good lineup.” Gonzalez went 15-9 this season and posted a 2.96 ERA, his best since 2012 when he also led the league with 21. The left-hander from Miami attributed the improvement to continuing to adjust and learn as a pitcher. “Just constantly trying to re-evolve, trying to find a new way to throw strikes,” he said. “The game's changing, the hitting is pretty tough. So for us, it's trying to attack the strike zone, trying to lock in immediately.”
National League Division Series, Game 1
Chicago Cubs vs. Washington Nationals
Oct. 6, 2017
Setting the stage in Washington
For the first time, the Cubs and Nationals are set to meet in the postseason. The Cubs (92-70 in regular season) are back for the third consecutive year after winning the Central division for the second straight year. Of course, after last year's World Series title – the first for the club in 108 years – the Cubs enter the 2017 edition of the postseason without the added pressure of the drought. “I would want to believe that coming into this year, we have an eagerness about us without an anxiety about us,” manager Joe Maddon said on Thursday. “I think that's what it really comes down to. I think when you approach in a knowing situation, you tend to be more anxious as opposed to eager or excited about being in that moment.” The Nationals (97-65 in regular season), East division champions for the second year in a row, are looking to get out of the division round for the first time since the franchise moved to Washington. In the three previous trips to the playoffs, the Nationals were eliminated without advancing past the NLDS. The two teams matched up seven times, with Washington taking the season series 4-3.
Older, wiser, just as competitive
Maybe Stephen Strasburg wasn't quite so overpowering this season as in 2014 when he struck out an National League-leading 242 batters, but there's little question he's a better pitcher. Oh he still throws hard enough with enough movement to strike out 204 batters, seventh best in the league, but the tall, 29-year-old from San Diego also posted a career-best 2.52 ERA and the third-best-in-the-league 6.5 WAR for pitchers, according to BaseballReference.com. Strasburg, the first overall draft pick in 2009, believes he's rounded into a more complete pitcher after eight seasons, driven mainly by a determination to get the most from himself. “From day one, there were pretty high expectations,” he told reporters before his NLDS Game 1 start. “You know, I think you just have to do a little bit of soul searching, look yourself in the mirror, and when things don't go well, learn from it. But the biggest thing is keep moving forward and trusting the process.” Not that he can't still reach back when needed. “But you know, I think I'm the same pitcher that I was back then,” he said. “You just kind of fine-tune everything, and as you get older, you get a better feel for your pitchers, but my intentions are still the same.” By the way, his 0.98 is the fourth-best second-half ERA in MLB history.
Cubs turn to Hendricks in Game 1
Kyle Hendricks will start Game 1 for the Cubs. Hendricks, 27, went 7-5 with a 3.03 ERA over 24 starts this season. The right-handed pitcher from Newport Beach, Calif., is no stranger to the postseason, and has thrived under the biggest pressure in the game. “All you're focused on is making pitches. That's my job and it never changes, no matter regular-season game, postseason game, no matter who you are facing on the other side of the mound,” Hendricks said on Thursday. “My focus is to go out there, make good pitches, rely on my preparation which I've done all year long. But when it comes down to it, when those lights turn on, you just have to execute pitches better than the other guy.” Last year as the Cubs looked to end the 108-year drought between championships, Hendricks logged a 1.42 ERA in five postseason starts, while opponents hit just .216 off him. “In the playoffs every pitch is important,” Hendricks said. “That's really the only way we look at it. As far as the history and trying to repeat and all that, we're just trying to win ballgames.”
Bryant and Harper connected by hometown
Kris Bryant and Bryce Harper are both nationally known stars on and off the field. They share a hometown of Las Vegas, Nev., and after the attack that killed dozens of people attending a country music concert in Las Vegas, both Bryant and Harper looked for ways to help their community. Harper tweeted a photo unveiling his cleats for the NLDS with the caption, “Vegas this is for you!” The cleats featuring the famous Welcome to Las Vegas sign with the message, “Pray for Las Vegas” inscribed on the side. Harper was also seen on Thursday's workout day wearing a black hoodie with #VegasStrong on the front. Bryant took to Twitter as well to share his thoughts on his hometown, tweeting: “Heartbroken to see what has happened in my hometown. Grateful that my family & friends are safe. Thoughts and prayers to all those affected.” The two grew up in the Las Vegas area and used to play each other in youth baseball. Also from the Las Vegas area, Chasen Shreve of the Yankees threw out the first pitch of the AL Wild Card Game at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday, as a way to honor the victims of the horrific attack. “It was a lot more emotional than I thought it would be,'' Shreve told the New York Post. “That's my hometown and my life. It was real emotional for me.''
The Nats' Trea Turner is a game changer. Despite spending 61 games on the disabled list with a broken wrist, the 24-year-old from Boynton Beach, Fla., ranked third in the majors and set a Nats record with 46 steals this season. He was the first player with two four-steal games since Billy Hamilton and Dee Gordon in 2015. “Sometimes it seems like he's faster than the ball,” catcher Matt Wieters said recently. At the plate, Turner has not only hit .283 with 73 runs this season, but also brought some pop to the top of the Nats' lineup as well with 23 doubles, six triples, 11 home runs and 45 RBIs in 95 games. Manager Dusty Baker compared him to Rickey Henderson. "You can hear the crowd," Nats first baseman Adam Lind told Bleacher Report's Danny Knobler. "If he gets on second base with no outs, it's hard for him not to score." Pitcher Gio Gonzalez said, "Everybody likes speed." Well, maybe not the Cubs when Turner is on base. "We know Trea Turner is going to run," Cubs catcher Willson Contreras said. "Every time he gets on base, he tries to get to second base. (The pitchers) have to change the tempo, change the delivery a little bit and play with his mind." Turner, who went 7-for-22 (.318), scored five times and stole two bases in last year's NLDS with the Dodgers, understands his role: "Speed, in general, in the postseason, is important," Turner told the Chicago Tribune. "There may be an error that decides the game and maybe a pickoff that's thrown away … Unless you have speed, that's not going to happen. It's important for me to get on first base, whether it's an error, walk, hit, whatever it maybe."
The last time the Cubs faced Daniel Murphy in the postseason, he went 9 for 17 (.529/.556/1.294) with a double, four home runs and a walk in four games against in the 2015 NLCS, so manager Joe Maddon is familiar with the havoc the Nats' hitting machine can wreak. “He's one of the more dangerous hitters playing baseball right now,” Maddon said. “I still wish he was a Met,” Maddon said this week. “There's no question I do. He was so good a couple years ago, and he's still good. He's still very good. He's outstanding.” Murphy batted .322 with 43 doubles and 25 home runs in 144 games this season. Since joining the Nats, Murphy has shown no sign of slowing down against the Cubs. He batted .286 with two doubles, two walks in seven games against the Cubs in in 2016, and .360 with two doubles, three home runs and three walks this season.
Check out our #MLBPlayers411 series for more information on some of the players participating in the postseason: