Posted on October 9, 2017, by Bryan Zarpentine

Bryce Harper Nationals

Image via chicagotribune.com

For the first time since winning last year’s World Series, the Chicago Cubs will host a playoff game at Wrigley Field on Monday. Fittingly, it’ll be an afternoon game, as the Nationals and Cubs both look to take the lead in the series that is currently tied 1-1. The Cubs nearly won both games in Washington to start the series, but Carl Edwards Jr. couldn’t preserve an 8th inning lead the way he did in Game 1. Nevertheless, the Cubs earned a split on the road and have a chance to return to the NLCS for the third straight season if they can win the next two games at home.

Harper’s Return

It was Ryan Zimmerman’s 3-run home run that put the Nationals ahead in Game 2, but it was Bryce Harper’s home run a few batters prior that woke Washington up. Now the question becomes whether Harper is back to his old ways after missing six weeks with a knee injury late in the season or if Saturday’s home run was just an aberration. Harper was just 3 for 18 to close the regular season and is still just 2 for 8 through two games against the Cubs. If he’s back, Harper is capable of carrying the Nationals offensively. With Washington only managing eight hits in two games against the Cubs, if Harper isn’t able to step up and lead the Nationals, who will?

Pitching Matchup

After tweaking his hamstring in his last start of the regular season, Nationals ace Max Scherzer was unable to start Game 1. At the time, Dusty Baker said that in a meaningful game Scherzer would have been able to stay in the game. However, he wasn’t able to throw a bullpen session in time to prove himself ready for Game 1. Of course, if he’s healthy, there’s no one the Nationals would want on the mound more than Scherzer. He went 16-6 with a 2.51 ERA this season, including a win over the Cubs in late June in which he allowed one run on two hits over six innings. Scherzer also has 12 previous postseason starts, including two last year.

The Cubs will counter with Jose Quintana, the second lefty Joe Maddon has used after Jon Lester took the ball in Game 2. Quintana did not have his best season, but he finally appeared to settle in late in the season after his trade to the Cubs and had an excellent September, going 2-0 with a 2.51 ERA. The caveat is that despite a 5-0 record at Wigley Field since the trade, Quintana’s ERA has been much higher at home than on the road. He’s also never appeared in a postseason game and had little experience pitching in meaningful September games prior to this season, so how he handles the environment is a bit of a mystery.

X-Factor

The biggest X-factor in Game 3 could be Jason Heyward. The Cubs haven’t gotten a ton of production from their lineup outside of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo over the first two games of the playoffs. Bryant has seven strikeouts in 10 career at-bats against Scherzer, so it could be up to Rizzo, Heyward, and the other lefties in Chicago’s lineup to push Scherzer out of the game and get into the Washington bullpen. Heyward has struggled since coming to Chicago and only has three at-bats the past two games. But he’s 4 for 11 (.364) against Scherzer, which is better than anyone else the Cubs have. If Chicago has success against Scherzer, don’t be surprised if Heyward is in the middle of everything.

Prediction

Despite questions about the health of his hamstring, it’s tough to go against Scherzer. Barring an injury, expect Scherzer to go deep in the game. Meanwhile, whether Quintana is ready to pitch in a playoff atmosphere is less of a certainty. Neither team will have an offensive explosion, but the Nationals will have a little more success. Washington wins 5-3.

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