The Nationals NLDS rotation spells good news for the Cubs

Barring anything absolutely nuts or Bumgarnerian, the Cubs will only face Max Scherzer once in the National League Division Series, even if it stretches to five games.

There's also the possibility the Cubs don't even have to face Scherzer at all.

Dusty Baker announced the Washington Nationals' Game 1 starter only Thursday morning, but MASN's Mark Zuckerman is hearing from sources Gio Gonzalez will get the ball in Game 2, pushing Scherzer back to Chicago for Game 3 Monday, at the earliest.

Scherzer "tweaked" his hamstring in his final start of the regular season last weekend and that issue will keep him out of the first two games in D.C. this weekend.

He was supposed to throw a bullpen Wednesday, but that was pushed back to Thursday. Baker explained why:

"We didn't want him to test it [Wednesday]," Baker said. "He threw some flat ground, but every day is important. When you have a nagging injury, every day is important for our trainers to evaluate it, put hands on him, and see if he's still sore or if he's feeling great."

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Based on the typical routine of starting pitchers, they rarely throw a full bullpen only two days before they are to appear in a game. Which means if Scherzer is first getting on a mound Thursday to test his hamstring, it's hard to see him getting the ball Saturday evening in Game 2, which lends credence to what Zuckerman's sources are telling him.

If Scherzer cannot go in Game 2, that would almost assuredly take him out of the running to throw at all in a winner-take-all Game 5 if the series gets that far. Doubt the Nationals would throw a less-than-healthy Scherzer on Monday and then have him start or relieve on a sub-100 percent hamstring Thursday with just two days of rest in between.

With the scheduled off-days Sunday and Wednesday, the starter for Games 1 and 2 for both teams would be fresh and on normal rest to throw in a Game 5.

"We realize that if he pitched Game 2, he could probably pitch Game 5 if necessary," Baker said. "We realize that, but is that worth, you know, taking a chance, and if you get past the first round and then are you jeopardizing the second round? So you have to kind of weigh both. But you know, the health of Max, I think, is number one."

We've already seen the Nationals prioritize the long-term health ramifications of their players over winning when they shut down Strasburg in the 2012 postseason. But then again, that move hasn't worked out so well for the franchise, so maybe the added pressure has changed things in our nation's capital?

Scherzer is the frontrunner (in my eyes, at least) for the NL Cy Young Award, as he went 16-6 with a 2.51 ERA in 31 starts. He led the league in strikeouts (268), WHIP (0.902), hits per nine innings (5.7) and complete games (2). 

[PODCAST: NLDS X-factors]

To be sure: Strasburg, Gonzalez and Illinois native Tanner Roark are no slouches. 

Strasburg has been lights-out since the All-Star Break, going 6-1 with a 0.86 ERA, 0.814 WHIP and 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings. But he also only pitched 62.2 innings due to an elbow issue that kept him sidelined from July 23 to Aug. 19.

Gonzalez actually led the Nats staff in innings (201) and games started (32) while pitching the second-best year of his career with a 15-9 record and 2.96 ERA.

Roark  a Wilmington, Illinois native who played his college ball at the University of Illinois — had a 4.67 ERA and 1.335 WHIP this season, but last year, he had a 2.83 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and won 16 games. But he's alowed 14 baserunners in 7 career postseason innings between 2014 and last fall.

No matter what way you look at it, the Cubs would catch a serious break by not having to face Scherzer twice.

Whenever Scherzer does throw in this series — if at all — the Cubs and Joe Maddon will have some serious lineup questions. The veteran right-hander is absolutely, insanely dominant against right-handed hitters, holding them to a microscopic .136 average and .425 OPS. Lefties, meanwhile, are hitting .215 with a .692 OPS and have hit 16 homers off Scherzer compared to only 6 llongballs from righties.

That means Maddon has two choices: 1) write out a lineup with Alex Avila catching over Willson Contreras and only one of Javy Baez or Addison Russell playing shortstop with switch-hitters Ian Happ or Ben Zobrist or the left-handed-hitting Tommy La Stella playing second base or 2) Keep Contreras, Baez and Russell all in the lineup vs. Scherzer and be forced to sacrifice offense for defense.

We'll see what way the Cubs opt to play it when the time comes, but it's really hard to envision Contreras, Russell or Baez ever out of the starting lineup for any game this October if they're all fully healthy.

Now, at least, it appears Maddon only has to make those tough decisions for one game.