Max Scherzer

'Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?' Ten reasons for Cubbie confidence heading into Game 5

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AP

'Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?' Ten reasons for Cubbie confidence heading into Game 5

Michael Taylor’s grand slam sent fans streaming toward the Wrigley Field exits in the eighth inning Wednesday night. It flipped this NLDS completely on its head. And it’s likely got Cubs fans in a gloomy mood as the team heads back to Washington for Thursday night’s do-or-die Game 5.

But while things might not seem to be going the Cubs’ way with the season and the quest for back-to-back World Series championships on the line, there are actually plenty of reasons to like the North Siders’ chances in this win-or-go-home fifth straight matchup with the Nationals.

1. Kyle Hendricks has been fantastic

The Cubs’ Game 1 starter is back on the hill in this elimination game, and there’s no pitcher on the roster the team would rather give the ball to in this situation.

Hendricks was stellar in the first game against the Nationals, besting the 10-strikeout outing of Stephen Strasburg, who took a no-hitter into the sixth inning. Hendricks pitched seven shutout innings, giving up just two hits and walking three.

But it’s not just his experience this postseason, but his experience from postseasons past. Hendricks pitched against Clayton Kershaw in the game that won the Cubs’ the pennant last fall, and he started opposite Corey Kluber in Game 7 of the World Series. In eight playoff starts in his career, Hendricks has a dazzling 1.98 ERA. This is guy is no stranger to — and he sure as heck isn’t bothered by — big games with the utmost meaning.

“You have to rely on your experience and having been in those situations,” Hendricks said Tuesday. “You know what the atmosphere is going to be like. You know what the crowd is going to be like. All those external factors, if you can kind of keep that under control, you know the pitching part. You know what to do once you get out on the mound.

“Being able to control all those external factors, I think, is going to be huge. But yeah, it will help me out. At the end of the day, it's just about making good pitches. That's where I need to mentally prepare, go out when it's Game 5, and just make good pitches.”

2. The Nationals still aren’t hitting

It might sound a little odd after a night where the Nationals won by a healthy 5-0 margin and had someone hit a grand slam, but the Nationals are still struggling mightily at the plate in this series.

Even including Taylor’s grand slam Wednesday night, the Nationals had just five hits in Game 4. They’re still just hitting .130 as a team against Cubs pitching, and they aren't getting on base much either, with a series on-base percentage of .241. Both of those numbers are postseason lows. Just two players on the team, Taylor and Ryan Zimmerman, have more than two hits on the series.

Nine of the 12 runs the Nationals have scored in this series have come in just two big innings — the eighth innings in Games 2 (five runs) and 4 (four runs). And two of those 12 runs have been unearned, the Nationals benefitting from errors made by Cubs fielders.

Could Wednesday night’s big fly off Taylor’s bat be the spark the Nationals have been looking for? Maybe. But that grand slam was only a grand slam because of the back-to-back walks issued by Carl Edwards Jr. If the Cubs can keep the walks down in Game 5 — they issued nine of them in Game 4 — the Nationals’ bats could still remain cold.

3. Jose Quintana is waiting in the wings

Joe Maddon declared after Game 4 that he plans to use Quintana on Thursday in the same way he used Jon Lester on Wednesday.

The skipper surprised a lot of people when he went to Lester in a game that wasn’t a must win Wednesday, trotting one of the best postseason pitchers ever out to the mound much like he did in Game 7 of last year’s World Series. And the move paid off, with Lester throwing three perfect innings and leaving with two outs in the eighth before the rest of the bullpen blew up behind him.

In fact, the most criticized of Maddon’s moves on social media after the game was taking Lester out.

While Hendricks is expected to be able to throw more than the four innings Jake Arrieta tossed in Game 4 — remember that Arrieta battled that hamstring issue throughout the last month — there’s a terrific backup plan waiting in Quintana.

Now, the lefty who came over in that midseason trade with the White Sox hasn’t made a relief appearance since his rookie season, but he had never pitched in the postseason before Monday’s Game 3 and he was great. He allowed just one unearned run in his 5.2 innings in that game, striking out seven and walking only one.

While Maddon might have gone into “must-win” mode a night early, using Lester and making him unavailable for Thursday night, Quintana is the next best option.

4. The Cubs got to Gio Gonzalez early in Game 2

While Dusty Baker somewhat surprisingly said he didn’t know who he would start Game 5 shortly after his team completed its season-extending victory Wednesday night, all signs point to Gio Gonzalez getting the ball for the Nationals.

Gonzalez pitched Game 2 of this series, a game the Cubs lost, but they did have success scoring off him early in the game, something they could not do against Strasburg (twice) or Max Scherzer. The Cubs scored three runs off Gonzalez — all three coming on a pair of homers, the only homers the Cubs have hit against Nationals pitching in this series. Willson Contreras and Anthony Rizzo socked those dingers, and you know they’ll be back in the middle of the Cubs’ lineup for Game 5.

Gonzalez is a formidable foe, of course, he of a 2.96 ERA and 15 wins during the regular season. But of the three starters they’ve faced this series, Gonzalez would seem to be the one most likely to get hit around by the Cubs. Certainly they haven’t been able to do that against Strasburg or Scherzer.

5. The Cubs’ bullpen is rested … 

Cubs fans might not want to hear positives about the team’s relief corps a day after Edwards and Wade Davis combined for the second eighth-inning implosion of the series. But one thing the Cubs don’t have to worry about is relievers being unavailable.

Coming into Game 4, Edwards, Davis, Pedro Strop and Mike Montgomery were the only relief arms to pitch, what with the starters doing such a bang-up job. Well only the first two of those guys pitched Wednesday, with Brian Duensing and Justin Wilson making their first appearances of this series, as well. Thanks to Lester's efforts, none of those guys threw an obscene amount of pitches Wednesday night, meaning they should all be ready to go Thursday.

Montgomery has only faced four batters in the NLDS. And we’ve yet to even see John Lackey. Maybe we won’t with Quintana scheduled to relieve Hendricks. But Maddon figures to have plenty of options.

6. … and at least one key guy in the Nationals’ bullpen is not

Meanwhile, as good as Strasburg was Wednesday, the Nationals still turned to their bullpen for two innings of relief, and Baker went with the two best pitchers in his bullpen. Elite setup man Ryan Madson pitched the eighth, and closer Sean Doolittle pitched the ninth.

Those were not at all the wrong moves by Baker, but those guys had to work. Madson, especially, who put two guys on with a walk and a hit by pitch and ended up throwing 27 pitches. Also, Madson had a rough outing in Game 1, allowing a run and throwing 24 pitches to six batters in his inning of work. Doolittle had a 1-2-3 ninth inning in Game 4.

But the point is that both guys, should they be needed in Game 5, threw Wednesday, with one of them throwing a lot. If the Cubs are within striking distance with Madson on the mound late in the game, maybe his 51 pitches in his two outings this series catch up to him.

7. No more Stephen Strasburg

While the Cubs have to face another great starting pitcher in Gonzalez and could see Scherzer in relief, they get to avoid the guy who’s dominated them in two of the four games in this series.

In Game 4, Strasburg one-upped his own incredible performance from Game 1, striking out 12 Cubs hitters in seven shutout innings. And he did it all a day after feeling real bad with an illness of some kind.

Half of the Cubs’ 44 strikeouts in this series have come against Strasburg. The bats looked bad Wednesday, but they should look better Thursday considering you know who won’t be on the mound.

“We have to do a better job offensively,” Maddon said Wednesday night. “We scored limited runs, and their guy was outstanding. … Strasburg was that good. The changeup was spectacular. Hit that one ball good early to left field that the wind knocked down. Otherwise, we didn't have a good time against them.”

8. Due for some dingers … and some runs

The Cubs hit 223 home runs during the regular season, a top-10 mark in baseball. Six guys hit 20 homers or more. But through four games of this series, the Cubs have only hit two homers, both coming in Game 2 off the bats of Contreras and Rizzo.

It means they’re due, right?

The Cubs’ bats have been cold this series — nearly as cold as the frigid Nationals, if we’re being honest — thanks to the Nationals’ great pitching. But this team scored 822 runs during the regular season, fourth in the majors and second in the NL. The Cubs led the NL in on-base percentage and ranked second in walks.

While it’s expected that the Nationals would get some great pitching from some of the best arms in the game, it’s highly unusual that the Cubs’ offense would be this unproductive for this long. You’d figure that’s got to change sometime.

9. The Cubs have been here before

You might remember that this isn’t the Cubs’ first go-round in an elimination game.

They’ve won the last three of them, Games 5, 6 and 7 of last year’s World Series after falling into that 3-1 hole against the Cleveland Indians. And they won that NL wild card game back in 2015 against the Pittsburgh Pirates. That means the Cubs are a grand total of 4-1 in elimination games in the last three postseasons (the lone loss in Game 4 of the 2015 NLCS against the New York Mets).

There has been no shortage of big games over the last three seasons, as the Cubs have rarely had trouble rising to the occasion, ousting the St. Louis Cardinals in 2015 and the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers last season en route to that World Series win over the Indians.

Here’s another huge game.

“We have been here before,” Maddon said Wednesday night. “Our guys are ready to play. It's been a really interesting series. Both teams have reflected one other pretty closely and they got us tonight, and we just have to fly back east and try to get them tomorrow night.”

10. Because Carl Edwards said so

You heard the man.

Cubs troll Nationals and laugh off all the Stephen Strasburg drama

Cubs troll Nationals and laugh off all the Stephen Strasburg drama

Did Stephen Strasburg just get guilt-tripped into starting an elimination game? Were the Washington Nationals Twitter-shamed after taking so much heat for the decision to stick with Tanner Roark after Tuesday night’s rainout? Are any of your pitchers under the weather?

“Everybody is, actually,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “Theoretically, everybody’s under the weather.”

The Cubs received a Game 4 lineup card with Strasburg’s name on it late Wednesday morning, and no one could think the Nationals were trying to conduct psychological warfare.

Strasburg and super-agent Scott Boras never would have signed off on it — allowing a $175 million pitcher’s reputation to get dented like this — and now a National League Division Series could leave a black eye for the entire organization in Washington.

This was a self-inflicted wound, manager Dusty Baker trying to cover for Strasburg, confusing his bullpen days and blaming it on the temperature change, hotel air-conditioning units and how: “It’s just this time of the year for mold around Chicago.”

“Being an allergy sufferer myself, I know it’s uncomfortable sometimes,” Maddon said. “I didn’t even know that was the issue why he was not going to pitch, so whatever they choose, that’s fine. That’s their prerogative. We just have to be ready. And we’ll be ready.”

While Washington dealt with the fallout from RainoutGate on Tuesday night, Maddon took his wife, Jaye, to see Bill Murray perform with classical musicians at the Chicago Symphony Center and went to dinner at Velvet Taco in the Gold Coast neighborhood, knowing Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta wanted to throw the first pitch at 3:08 p.m. (weather permitting).

“Honestly, it doesn’t bother me,” Maddon said. “I mean that sincerely, because it doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter. It comes down to playing the game. Our guys will be ready to play.

“We feel really strongly about Jake today, also, and this whole series has been really well-pitched. I’ve said it: Their pitching staff, to me, their starters, are as good as anybody’s. All five of them. Roark’s no walk in the park, Strasburg, of course not, Gio (Gonzalez). You saw what (Max) Scherzer did with a bad leg the other day.

“Whatever they choose to do, that’s fine. We just have to go out there and play. It’s about us. It’s about Jake pitching Jake’s kind of a game. And if he does that, we’ll be in good shape.”

Strasburg became a lightning rod within the industry for the way the Nationals shut him down in September 2012, a controversial move that could be interpreted as a forward-thinking approach with a Tommy John survivor or a sign of entitlement/arrogance, expecting to be in the playoffs year after year after year.

Strasburg took a no-hitter into the sixth inning of a Game 1 loss last week at Nationals Park, the victim of two unearned runs. After this switcheroo, the Cubs subbed in Jason Heyward (15-for-37 in his career vs. Strasburg) for Kyle Schwarber and moved Ben Zobrist from right to left field, hoping to avoid a return flight to Washington and move on to the Los Angeles Dodgers and a third consecutive trip to the NL Championship Series.

“I have no idea what’s going on or how bad Strasburg felt,” Maddon said. “But, again, it doesn’t matter. For me, none of that matters. It’s Jon Jay, Kris Bryant, (Anthony) Rizzo, etc., playing our game today, and Jake pitching his, and that’s all that really matters. Control what you can control. That’s probably the best way to go about your business.”

Strasburg? Scherzer? Kershaw? Cubs still have the pitching to be unstoppable in October again

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USA TODAY

Strasburg? Scherzer? Kershaw? Cubs still have the pitching to be unstoppable in October again

Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer got all the hype leading into this National League Division Series – and took no-hitters into the sixth and seventh innings in Games 1 and 3 – and yet the Washington Nationals are still in crisis mode.    

The rain that poured onto Wrigley Field on Tuesday night could have changed everything, with Strasburg theoretically available to start a postponed elimination game on Wednesday afternoon on normal rest.

The Strasburg shutdown rules now apparently have an “under the weather” section, with manager Dusty Baker revealing the $175 million ace/former No. 1 overall pick will be saved for an if-necessary Game 5 on Thursday night at Nationals Park.

Washington will stick with Tanner Roark (13-11, 4.67 ERA) as planned. Whatever is going on behind the scenes with the Nationals, the Cubs get some of the blame, because their playoff rotation has been that good, with Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta still waiting to throw the first pitch in Game 4 at 3:08 p.m.

“Listen, they have spectacular pitching, the Nationals do, but our guys have matched them inning for inning,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That’s why we won. Their pitching’s been great, so has ours. You have to pitch better than really good pitching – great pitching – to win. And we have. It comes down to that. Our starters have permitted us to be in this position.”

That’s one win away from a third straight trip to the NL Championship Series where the talk will be about Clayton Kershaw and if the Cubs can match up with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Every starter from the Opening Day rotation got injured at some point this season – remember Brett Anderson? – and the Cubs still headed into October with questions even after a 15-4 burst to close the regular season.

Kyle Hendricks doesn’t have the velocity or ego of a standard Game 1 starter. Jon Lester got shut down with left lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue in late August/early September. Jose Quintana didn’t have any playoff experience. Arrieta was recovering from a Grade 1 right hamstring strain.

[MORE: Respect this: How Anthony Rizzo owns October]     

Yet in a postseason environment where Chris Sale went 0-2 with an 8.38 ERA (one start) for the already-eliminated Boston Red Sox and Zack Greinke (7.27 ERA) didn’t win either of his two starts with the gone-fishin’ Arizona Diamondbacks, the Cubs have come up aces.

Combined, Hendricks, Lester and Quintana have allowed two runs (one earned) in 18.2 innings, limiting the Nationals to a .094 batting average and a .324 OPS. To put that in perspective, the Cubs have contained a Washington lineup that scored 800-plus runs to the point where its OPS is basically what Lester has done as an NL hitter (.318).         

“You win with pitching – pitching and defense,” Hendricks said. “If your starter can get you six, seven innings into a game, it takes a lot off your bullpen.

“In this day and age, we’re lucky to have the rotation we have and rely on that.”

Washington’s 1.96 rotation ERA ranks a distant second behind the Cubs (0.48) in a 10-team playoff field, another validation of the pitching infrastructure/game-planning system overseen by coaches Chris Bosio, Mike Borzello and Lester Strode and run prevention coordinator Tommy Hottovy.

“It’s really been interesting to watch all the runs being scored against some really good pitching,” Maddon said. “I don’t know the reason. There’s no good reason. But I do know how good the National pitching staff is versus our hitters. And then Washington has a very good offensive team, and our pitchers have done a nice job.

“It’s been the classic 60s-70s kind of series, as opposed to everybody’s looking for the offense these days.”

This is the seventh playoff round of the Maddon Era in Wrigleyville and the Cubs are coming off a championship run where they heard all about the legend of Madison Bumgarner and the even-year San Francisco Giants, Kershaw wanting to rewrite his legacy in October and The Klubot, Corey Kluber, waiting to start three World Series games for the Cleveland Indians.  

This rotation isn’t unbeatable – and the picture looks different if Arrieta suddenly hops off the mound in pain – but the Cubs are unflappable and that could make them unstoppable.   

“Each individual handles it differently, and you’ve got to figure out what works for you,” Lester said. “I just know from our clubhouse and being around these guys the last three years, you could see the nervousness and the anxiety in 2015. Last year was more kind of like: ‘We’re not going to let that happen again’ and more of a calmness in the clubhouse.

“The more you play in these situations, the more you can kind of separate all the other stuff that goes along with it, and just go and worry about what your job is that day.”

In the Wednesday schedule released to the media on Tuesday night, Strasburg was listed as TBD in the Wrigley Field interview room.