It always seemed destined to end up like this. Before the series, every preview you saw or went through in your own head made it awfully hard to split these two teams. Similar offenses, rotations that though they go about it differently are just about as solid, and deep pens. The games themselves haven’t varied from that, coming down to one play here or there. It’s far and away the tightest series, as the only other one to go the full route, New York-Cleveland, only had two close games. The Cubs and Nats have had four.
When you get to a deciding game, the temptation is to see 1) how you could have avoided this and/or 2) whether you deserve to be here at all. And because it’s coming to a winner-take-all, the answer is usually equally both. On the first half, you could say the Cubs are one Edwards Jr. hanging curve from having swept this. They’ve really pitched marvelously, better than we could have imagined. But it’s really only that mistake that has gotten the Cubs here. Without it, they don’t even see Strasburg a second time.
Or you could say that they haven’t hit a lick. Bryant’s biggest contribution has been reaching on an error. They’ve been downright terrible in the field, and it cost them the decisive run in Game 4 which kind of landed them here. They’ve scored eight runs in four games. They almost have as many errors. In some ways, they’re lucky to even be here at all. Which means that this is probably exactly where they should be.
It feels weird, but this might be the first time the Cubs don’t have any of the playoff voodoo in a deciding game. They’re the defending champs. They’re bidding for their third-straight NLCS. They’re the ones who have proven that when crunch time arrives, they get it done. Meanwhile, the Nationals are the ones who can’t get past this. Who have lost two previous Game 5’s at home. They have the manager who spits it up at the biggest moments. And they’ve thrown their two biggest bullets in the past two games, though they can bring one of those back tonight if they see fit.
So here we are. If you’re a worrier, and I tend to be, then every Kyle Hendricks start doesn’t have you sitting comfortably because you know just how thin the margin of error is. Add in a team seeing him for a second time in a week, and I wouldn’t condemn you for being a tad nervous.
Or I could say that Kyle Hendricks hasn’t had anything less than a quality start since August 15th. He’s as automatic as anyone on the Cubs’ staff right now. And he’s got playoff pedigree. You could say that he’s the surest thing about tonight, given the way the offense has struggled and the pen’s semi-regular dry heaves. Hendricks has pitched in two clinchers. The Cubs won both. He was brilliant in the first, and actually pretty good in the second before his manager went bonkers. So if you’re user-confident in The Cerebral Assassin, you certainly have good reason to be.
What he’ll face on the other side still isn’t determined. Everything points to Gio Gonzalez starting with Max Scherzer waiting right behind him. Dusty could, conceivably, start Scherzer on two days rest and get once through the lineup and then have Gio and/or his plus bullpen behind that. That way makes less sense, but it could happen. If it’s the former, it would probably be imperative that the Cubs get to Gio early, something they haven’t done really to anyone all series. Because if it’s tied or the Nats are leading in the fourth, fifth, or sixth and Scherzer comes jogging out of the pen and Nationals Park comes off the foundation, that could be a problem.
The Cubs have options in that sense if Hendricks isn’t his normal self, too. That’s what I would have saved Lester for, but hey, it worked out. And the Nationals don’t really commit themselves to platoon advantages no matter who’s pitching anyway. Montgomery could get through this lineup once. Lackey could be ready to go. Quintana is an option as well, though that would leave you bereft of any options whatsoever if you advance. I know I know, there is no advance without a win tonight blah blah blah. Q is not necessary out of the pen, at least he shouldn’t be.
Lineup changes hinge on whoever starts. Almora would start if Gio is the starter, Jay probably if not. Happ would probably start if Gio goes, and Schwarber likely if not. But clearly the Nationals are going to do everything, so every Cub should have their spikes on and early.
Seems pretty simple. If the Cubs bats come to life, even just a little bit, they probably win. If they don’t, the championship-defense is probably over. But hey, this is what the Cubs do now. They find a way.
Lead photo courtesy Geoff Burke—USA Today Sports