Posted on October 5, 2017, by Bryan Zarpentine
The National League Division Series gets underway Friday night when the Chicago Cubs visit the Washington Nationals. Both teams won their division this season, although the Nationals did so with a huge cushion while the Cubs had to sweat it out until the final week of the regular season. Regardless of how they got here, both the Nationals and Cubs see themselves as World Series contenders, so this could be a rather interesting series that most expect to last five games.
There’s always pressure in postseason games. But these two teams must be feeling a different kind of pressure heading into the NLDS. For the defending champion Cubs, the pressure is off to some extent. The fanbase has the World Series it waited more than a century to win. Of course, winning a second would be great. But the core of the team will remain together for years to come, and so if the Cubs lose, they’ll have another chance next year.
The Nationals don’t exactly share that perspective. Washington’s window to win a World Series appears to be closing within the next year or two. The Nationals have also failed to make it past the NLDS in three previous trips to the postseason. There is mounting pressure on the club to finally advance in the playoffs and get their shot at playing in the Fall Classic. Bottom line: the Cubs can afford to play a little more loose and confident, whereas the Nationals could be weighed down with pressure and expectations.
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With Max Scherzer hampered by a “tweaked” hamstring, the Nationals have been forced to move him to later in the series (hopefully) and start Stephen Strasburg in Game 1. Of course, that’s not all bad news. Strasburg was 15-4 with a 2.52 ERA this season. To be fair, he missed time in July and August with elbow issues. But in 10 starts since the all-star break, Strasburg posted a 0.86 ERA, which is mind-blowing after an extended period of time. Also, in a start against the Cubs in late June, Strasburg struck out 13 and got the win, showing that he’s capable of overpowering Chicago’s powerful lineup.
Meanwhile, the Cubs have decided to go with Kyle Hendricks in Game 1. Despite winning just seven games this season, Hendricks had a 3.03 ERA this season, the lowest among Chicago’s starters. Like Strasburg, Hendricks was also at his best late in the year, although perhaps not quite as dominant. After the all-star break, he had a 2.13 ERA. That includes taking a loss against the Nationals in which he let up three runs over seven innings but was out-dueled by Tanner Roark. After his performance during last year’s postseason, a 1.42 ERA in five starts, the Cubs have to feel like they’re in good hands with Hendricks starting.
All eyes are on Bryce Harper, who may be the ultimate X-factor in this series. He returned late in the season after six weeks on the shelf with a knee injury, going 3 for 18 with seven strikeouts. The days between the end of the regular season and start of the postseason will give his knee more time to recover. However, whether his timing is back and whether he’ll be able to recapture the MVP-caliber form he had earlier this season before the injury remains to be seen.
It’s hard to ignore how dominant Strasburg was the last two months of the season. With the Nationals opening at home, there’s no reason why he can’t keep that going. More importantly, Strasburg has shown in recent months that he can go deep in games, helping limit the need for Washington’s bullpen to pitch more than a couple innings. Washington gets a much-needed win in Game 1 following a great pitcher’s duel between Strasburg and Hendricks. Nationals win 4-1.