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

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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.

Why Joe Maddon still thinks Kyle Schwarber makes sense as a leadoff hitter

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AP

Why Joe Maddon still thinks Kyle Schwarber makes sense as a leadoff hitter

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Kyle Schwarber may take the first official at-bat of the 2018 Cubs season. 

When the Cubs take on the Giancarlo Stanton-less Marlins in Miami March 29, Schwarber may very well be the team's leadoff hitter.

Yes, even after that idea didn't pan out so well last year.

As manager Joe Maddon met with the media Tuesday afternoon at the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort, he admitted he hasn't lined up a batting order for 2018 yet, but when asked about Schwarber, he said he wouldn't run from the idea of using the now-svelt slugger atop the lineup.

"He's probably arguably in the best shape of his life, so it starts there," Maddon said. "Regarding the leadoff thing — it was only failed in the sense that Kyle had a tough time last year. He could have hit 1-9 and still had a tough time last year. It just was not his year, although he rebounded nicely.

"I don't know, I haven't drawn a lot of conclusions with that. Obviously we still got to see what the team's going to look like in its entirety. Schwarber obviously could lead off, if he is hitting like Schwarber and he's accepting his walks and he's got his .250-plus batting average. His on-base percentage is going to be a hundred points over his batting average, I really believe that again.

"I definitely will consider [Schwaber leadoff] again, but I want to see who all the available candidates are first."

Schwarber hitting leadoff was a gigantic storyline entering 2017 and it didn't work out so well when the lefty slugger hit just .190 with a .693 OPS in 36 starts atop the order. 

He was moved lower in the order, but still wound up hitting just .211 with a .782 OPS overall, though he did manage 30 homers despite coming in shy of 500 plate appearances after a midseason stint in the minors.

The Cubs still haven't found a clear choice for the leadoff spot since Dexter Fowler left in free agency following the 2016 World Series championship and unless they make a trade, the 2018 leadoff guy(s) will come from the group already in place.

Among the choices, Schwarber provides maybe the best option, especially against right-handed pitching. He's patient, sees a lot of pitches, can give the team an immediate boost with a first-inning homer and can set the table for MVP candidates Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo immediately behind him.

Ian Happ could also fill that role in his sophomore campaign, though both players strike out a ton.

Maddon wouldn't commit to Schwarber playing more against left-handed pitching in 2018, but even if he sits, Albert Almora Jr. — who hammers southpaws — could be a nice fill-in guy.

Either way, the Cubs aren't stressing about this whole leadoff thing anywhere near as much as the fanbase is.

"It would be a luxury for us," Theo Epstein said. "You can have a really functional offense without a traditional leadoff guy. I think we demonstrated that last year — we scored over 800 runs, second most in the league behind Colorado, without much impact in the leadoff spot.

"I'd sign up for over 800 runs again and the second-most runs in the league. What shape it takes, I don't really care. We'd love to have a prototypical leadoff guy, but not at the expense of the core elements of the team.

"Right now, pitching is more important."

Cubs plan to keep stockpiling pitching even as 2018 staff comes into focus

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AP

Cubs plan to keep stockpiling pitching even as 2018 staff comes into focus

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — In a way, the Cubs are playing not to lose right now.

That may seem like an odd way to approach the MLB offseason for a team that has made it to three straight National League Championship Series. 

But in reality, it's a smart way to gear up for 2018.

Theo Epstein's front office knows they can't count on the remarkable run of health the Cubs pitching staff posted in 2015-16. Last year, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks missed several weeks each with injuries, but the staff was otherwise pretty healthy.

So this winter is all about pitching, pitching, pitching and more pitching. It's a war of attrition and the Cubs are trying not to lose the war.

The Cubs entered the offseason with a clear need for two starting pitchers, a closer and at least one other high-leverage reliever. They've since signed Tyler Chatwood and reached an agreement with Brandon Morrow that should become official Tuesday morning.

Check off one starter and one impact reliever, a guy who could slot in at closer if the Cubs can't bring back Wade Davis.

That pair of moves has helped the Cubs relax a bit at the MLB Winter Meetings this week at Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort, but the hunt for pitching will never be truly over.

"One way to look at the offseason is to look at all the different ways a season can be sunk and build to mitigate those threats," Epstein said. "Our greatest threats right now relate to pitching and not having enough quality pitching, suffering multiple injuries to pitching, not having enough depth."

Fans want to know about a leadoff hitter and that's fair, but run prevention is dominating the Cubs' attention.

They're open to trades from their glut of young, controllable position players for impact pitching, but Epstein and Co. are also still hot on the free agent market, in talks with Alex Cobb and other potential starters. 

Even after the Morrow signing becomes official, the Cubs still figure to be involved in what Epstein calls a very deep reliever class. 

Morrow doesn't have a long track record of health — he's appeared in more than 20 games in a season just once (2017) since 2012 — but the Cubs are wary of injury issues for every pitcher they acquire. They know full well the injury risks associated with pitching and don't intend to push anybody they sign or trade for.

Joe Maddon is a huge proponent of rest and the Cubs have no interest in running relievers — closers or not — into the ground by having them throw more than three outs on a consistent basis.

Is there any scenario in which the Cubs leave the "Happiest Place on Earth" with a content feeling about their 2018 pitching staff?

"You can't dictate the timetable, so I think an opportunity that really makes sense presents itself and we hesitate, I'd be disappointed," Epstein said. "But I also don't want to make something happen just for the sake of making something happen.

"We'll try to be really thorough, try to be really creative and try to be aggressive when appropriate to continue to round out this pitching staff. It really doesn't matter when you get stuff done — at the winter meetings, after the winter meetings, in January, in spring training — as long as you end up having a pitching staff that is really talented and deep enough to withstand the attrition that always happens during the course of the season.

"We'd love to add another starter one way or another if we could and at least one more reliever."