Cubs

Predicting the outcome of Cubs-Nationals winner-take-all Game 5

Predicting the outcome of Cubs-Nationals winner-take-all Game 5

The Cubs know full well the crapshoot that is a one-game playoff.

After besting the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 2015 wild-card game and playing a tense, thrilling Game 7 last fall, winner-take-all games are nothing new to Joe Maddon and Co.

But while the Cubs are 2-0 in those winner-take-all games the last two years (and 4-1 overall in elimination games), anything can happen in one game. Things can shift on one play or one pitch and luck plays an enormous factor with so little wiggle room.

So you'll forgive Maddon if he and the Cubs didn't want this at all — a Game 5 in front of a packed, raucous Washington crowd with all hands on deck.

That's why Maddon went all in on Game 4, trying to lock up the NLDS at Wrigley Field Wednesday night, employing Jon Lester out of the bullpen for 11 outs. 

But a combination of Stephen Strasburg's wiffle ball action, a shaky defensive play and Michael A. Taylor's stunning grand slam, the Cubs' title defense now comes down to just one game with Kyle Hendricks on the hill vs. Gio Gonzalez.

The Nationals just announced Gonzalez as a starter Thursday afternoon. The Cubs jumped him early in Game 2 in Washington for three runs before ultimately blowing it in the eighth inning.

Here's how the Cubs will line up behind The Professor:

1. Jon Jay - LF
2. Kris Bryant - 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Willson Contreras - C
5. Albert Almora Jr. - CF
6. Addison Russell - SS
7. Jason Heyward - RF
8. Javy Baez - 2B
9. Kyle Hendricks - P

It's interesting that Ben Zobrist didn't make the cut, as the reigning World Series MVP has a modest three-game hitting streak in this NLDS, including the only extra-base hits off Max Scherzer and Strasburg the last two games (both doubles). But Zobrist and Ian Happ will be weapons off the bench as switch-hitters in a game that figures to feature plenty of pitching changes and bullpen matchups.

The Nationals counter with a familiar lineup behind Gonzalez:

1. Trea Turner - SS
2. Jayson Werth - LF
3. Bryce Harper - RF
4. Ryan Zimmerman - 3B
5. Daniel Murphy - 2B
6. Anthony Rendon - 3B
7. Matt Wieters - C
8. Michael A. Taylor - CF
9. Gio Gonzalez

[RELATED — 10 reasons for Cubbie confidence]

The Cubs always want to get out to a good start, but the need for an early lead (hey, that rhymed!) is even greater in these one-game, winner-take-all postseason contests.

Especially because Scherzer looms in the bullpen for the Nationals. He threw 98 pitches on Monday night and is coming off a hamstring injury less than two weeks ago, so who knows how may pitches/innings Scherzer can throw Thursday night.

But his presence looms large, as well as a mostly-rested Nationals bullpen. If Gonzalez gets into any trouble, Dusty Baker can immediately turn to Game 4 starter-turned-watcher Tanner Roark, who has yet to pitch in this series. Or Scherzer could be the immediate call and the Nationals just ride him as long as they can.

The Cubs, meanwhile, will be almost assuredly be without Lester after he threw 55 pitches Wednesday night. Wade Davis and Carl Edwards Jr. also threw and combined to get zero outs in another eighth-inning collapse. 

Davis is a battle-tested veteran who is intensely even-keeled and Taylor's homer was only the second allowed by the Cubs closer in his postseason career (34.1 innings) and first as a reliever. But how many outs could he realistically go after throwing 11 pitches Wednesday? He's a former starter, but has gone over 30 pitches in an outing just six times since the start of 2014 (a span of 267 appearances) and has never reached the 40-pitch mark.

The Cubs will have Jose Quintana available out of the bullpen, after he matched Scherzer inning for inning Monday night. But that was his first postseason game ever and he hasn't appeared as a reliever since 2012, so if Maddon calls Q's number, it will be a foreign experience for the 28-year-old lefty.

The Cubs could use another patiently dominant outing from Hendricks and his 1.98 postseason ERA after lulling the Nationals offense to sleep in Game 1, but ultimately this game will come down to which offense is able to break out of its slump just enough to win.

The Cubs (.159 average, .514 OPS) and Nationals (.130, .493) have the two worst offenses in MLB postseasons this fall and have combined for just 20 runs in the first four games of this series.

The Nationals have scored 12 of those, nine of which have come in the two eighth-inning implosions in Games 2 and 4. Two of the other runs came of the unearned variety off Cubs errors in the last two games at Wrigley Field.

The positive news for the Cubs: They won't have to face Strasburg at all after striking out 22 times and scoring just two unearned runs against the Nationals stud righty in two games.

Prediction — Cubs 5, Nationals 4

Kris Bryant puts his first inning struggles (0-for-4, 4 Ks) behind him in the series and gets the Cubs on the board early with an opening-frame homer. He hits two longballs in the game as the Cubs' bats finally wake up and he makes Wednesday's Golden Sombrero (4 Ks) a distant memory.

Albert Almora Jr. and Kyle Schwarber (off the bench) combine for three hits and the Cubs pitch just enough to win, with Maddon cobbling together the bullpen behind yet another gutsy performance from Hendricks.

These two offenses are far too good to be kept down for long.

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.