We ended up with a pretty good round of Division Series. Two series go five games, thanks to Stephen Strasburg‘s gem on a drizzly Wednesday at Wrigley. We had a 13-inning game in the Cleveland Indians–New York Yankees series, a couple of tense pitching duels, a little too much sloppy defense, Jose Altuve‘s three-homer game, Chris Sale and Justin Verlander battling each other in relief and one controversial case of mold sickness. I’d give the round a B-minus, with the potential to go higher if we get a classic Thursday night.
The most important thing of the day: Will Max Scherzer be available for the Nationals, and for how many pitches? We know managers love to concentrate as many innings as possible in their best pitchers — witness Joe Maddon using Jon Lester for 3.2 innings in Game 4 — especially in a do-or-die game. Scherzer would be pitching on two days of rest after throwing 98 pitches in Game 3.
NLDS Game 5: Cubs at Nationals (series tied 2-2)
Kyle Hendricks (7-5, 3.03) versus TBD, 8 p.m. ET (TBS)
The stakes: The Cubs ended their curse last season, but the Nationals are fighting a big curse as well: the D.C. sports curse! The city’s four major pro sports teams have played 68 combined seasons (over 19 years) without reaching a conference or league final, easily the most of any city. The Capitals were the last D.C. team to reach a final, back in 1998. The city with the next-longest drought is Cincinnati, with 44 seasons.
Beyond that, just a few things, such as the Cubs chasing a potential dynasty; Dusty Baker and maybe Joe Maddon both chasing Hall of Fame status; Bryce Harper and Strasburg, those back-to-back No. 1 overall picks, labeled future superstars before they made their big league debuts, trying to deliver a World Series title; and a colossal battle against the Dodgers, no matter which team moves on.
If the Nationals win: They finally get over that NLDS hump. They get a rematch with the Dodgers after losing to them in five games in the NLDS last year, a series that ended with Clayton Kershaw getting the final two outs in relief.
If the Cubs win: A rematch against the Dodgers in the NLCS. Given that Jake Arrieta, Lester and Hendricks will all have pitched in the final games, that would set up Jose Quintana for the Game 1 start — assuming he doesn’t make an appearance in Game 5 as well.
One key stat to know: Hendricks was brilliant in Game 1, with two hits over seven scoreless innings. He threw 65 percent fastballs that game, his second-highest rate of any start this season (he had a season average of 48 percent). He got five swing-and-misses, which isn’t a lot, but it was his second most on his fastball in any start. He also induced eight foul balls and 24 called strikes out of 69 total fastballs thrown. In other words, for a guy who throws 87: location, location, location. Let’s see if Hendricks again sticks with the sinking fastball/changeup combo, as his cutter (.976 OPS allowed on the season) and curveball (1.188 OPS allowed) were not effective pitches.
The matchup that matters most: Whom does Maddon start? In Gio Gonzalez’s start in Game 2, he went with Javier Baez at second base, Ben Zobrist in right field, Albert Almora in center and Ian Happ in left, with Jason Heyward on the bench (Kyle Schwarber doesn’t start against lefties). Given the Cubs’ shoddy defense in the series (seven errors) does Maddon go with Heyward’s defense in right field?
Baker still hasn’t announced who is starting for the Nats, and could conceivably pull out an old table-top strategy: Start Gonzalez, then bring in Tanner Roark in relief. But that idea is mitigated a bit because Zobrist and Happ are switch-hitters. Unless Gonzalez is dealing, look for Baker to empty his bullpen to get as many matchups in his favor. Even though Sammy Solis and Oliver Perez gave up hits the other day, they’re still good left-on-left matchups if needed.
The prediction: There’s nothing better than an ultimate game in baseball, with tension on every pitch from the first batter on. Maddon has a couple of bullpen issues: Without Lester as a long man (though I wouldn’t discount the idea of him getting an inning or two) and with Carl Edwards giving up a home run to Harper in Game 2 and walking two batters in the rain in Game 4, Maddon will definitely need Hendricks to give him some length. Closer Wade Davis also appeared before the ninth just once all season before coming in Wednesday and giving up Michael Taylor‘s grand slam, so he’s a guy Maddon prefers to use for one inning. The Cubs have the starting pitcher advantage, and the Nationals probably have the bullpen advantage. This game might come down to a home run. I say the Nationals hit two out — by Harper and Anthony Rendon — and win 4-3. Yes, a one-run victory for Dusty Baker.