National League Central Division Preview
By Matt Cohen
The Chicago Cubs clinched the National League Central Division on September 27, setting up a much anticipated matchup with the Washington Nationals in the divisional round of the playoffs.
The Nationals will have home field advantage in the series, and the winner will go to face the winner of series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the winner of the National League wild card game.
For the Nationals, a team looking to advance beyond the NLDS for the first time in its history, one of the biggest storylines is the timely return to health for many star players. No return has been more anticipated than that of right fielder Bryce Harper. The MVP candidate had been the catalyst for the Nationals offense before suffering an injury in August, and missing 41 games. He returned to the lineup on Tuesday, and will look to be back at 100% for the beginning on the playoffs. Trea Turner, Jayson Werth and Max Scherzer also made returns from the disabled list in the final weeks of the season, and key bench piece Brian Goodwin is expected to make a return for the playoffs as well.
The Nationals will be facing a Cubs team that struggled in the first half, appearing to suffer from a lingering World Series hangover, but have turned it all around since the All-Star break. In the second half of the season, the Cubs have posted the best record in the National League. They boast stars such as reigning Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras. Bryant and Rizzo already were established as two of baseball’s best hitters, and a stellar second half of the season has moved Contreras to a star level. The Cubs have been boosted by players returning from injury as well, as shortstop Addison Russell recently made a return off of the disabled list.
In game one, the Nats will likely throw ace Max Scherzer, and the Cubs will likely send out Jon Lester. A big key to this game could be Turner. Lester is known for an inability to throw to first base, and the Nationals have one of baseball’s best base stealers in Turner. Turner ran wild on the Cubs when the two faced off in D.C. in July, and he will look to do so again facing Lester. Lester struggled in July, went of the DL, and has looked better since coming back, but not his normal self.
Lester will likely be the game one starter, but predicting the Cubs rotation afterward is a total crapshoot. I see the Cubs going with the following order: Lester, Arrieta, Hendricks, Quintana.
Arrieta has made two starts since coming off the disabled list, and hasn’t been great since doing so. Hendricks has been the Cubs best pitcher of late, but he seems more likely to pitch in game three. Quintana has been good since joining the Cubs at the trade deadline, but he has no playoff experience. He has never faced the Nationals before in his career. I see the Cubs holding him back for game four.
The Nationals rotation is crystal clear. Scherzer will pitch game one, Stephen Strasburg will pitch game two, Gio Gonzalez in game three and Tanner Roark in game four.
Scherzer and Strasburg are both in the midst of Cy Young caliber seasons. Scherzer is the front runner for the award, and Strasburg recently finished a stretch of 34 consecutive scoreless innings. Gonzalez has had a fantastic year as well. Scherzer, Strasburg and Gonzalez, respectively, make up the number two, three and four pitchers in terms of ERA in the National League this year. Roark has had an up and down year, but he is the best option that the Nationals have to take the final spot in the rotation.
The Cubs bullpen has been strong this year with Carl Edwards Jr. and Wade Davis leading the way. The Nationals, on the other hand, have made the biggest turnaround in the bullpen in all of baseball. During the first half of the year, the Nationals bullpen was the worst in Major League Baseball. It’s ERA was dead last. No lead was safe as soon as manager Dusty Baker took his starter out of the game. But at the trade deadline, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo acquired Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler. Doolittle became the closer, and has converted in each and every save opportunity he has had. Madson and Kintzler have both been excellent, and the Nationals bullpen ERA in the second half was the best in baseball. The Nationals bullpen literally went from worst to first.
Game one will played on October 6 at Nationals Park. The playoffs are, finally, here.