Max Scherzer

Scouting the Cubs' competition: Will the Nationals finally win it all before Bryce Harper leaves?

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USA TODAY

Scouting the Cubs' competition: Will the Nationals finally win it all before Bryce Harper leaves?

The expectations couldn't be any higher for the 2018 Chicago Cubs. 

It's 2016 all over again. The goal isn't just a trip to the playoffs or another NL pennant. It's World Series or bust for this group of North Siders.

With that, let's take a look at all of the teams that could stand in the way of the Cubs getting back to the Fall Classic:

Washington Nationals

2017 record: 97-65, 1st place in NL East

Offseason additions: Miguel Montero, Matt Adams, Joaquin Benoit, Matt Reynolds, Jeremy Hellickson, Tommy Milone

Offseason departures: Adam Lind, Stephen Drew, Jose Lobaton, Jayson Werth, Matt Albers, Oliver Perez, Joe Blanton

X-factor: The health of their stars

Health is an X-factor for any team, but it carries more weight in D.C. than anywhere else in baseball.

Bryce Harper, Trea Turner and Stephen Strasburg are three of the Nationals' best players and yet three guys that can't seem to stay healthy for a full season. Couple that group with leadoff hitter Adam Eaton and Daniel Murphy coming off knee injuries, the health questions are running rampant in Washington.

Those are the Nationals' projected Top 4 hitters and No. 2 starter. If they all stay healthy, they'll put up some whopping numbers. But if history repeats, it will make the road quite a bit tougher despite a weak NL East.

Projected lineup

1. Adam Eaton - LF
2. Trea Turner - SS
3. Bryce Harper - RF
4. Anthony Rendon - 3B
5. Ryan Zimmerman - 1B
6. Howie Kendrick - 2B
7. Matt Wieters - C
8. Michael Taylor - CF

Projected rotation

1. Max Scherzer
2. Stephen Strasburg
3. Gio Gonzalez
4. Tanner Roark
5. A.J. Cole

Outlook

When healthy, this may be the most talented roster in the NL. Harper, Rendon, Murphy and Turner could all wind up as serious contenders in the 2018 MVP race while Scherzer and Strasburg figure to garner some Cy Young votes once again.

The Nationals also have the advantage of a pretty rough division, at least on paper. Three teams are rebuilding and the Mets haven't made the playoffs in a couple years now. Getting to play 18+ games against all four of those teams is a godsend.

Which is good news for a Nationals fanbase that is absolutely starving for some actual postseason success. Wade Davis and the Cubs knocked Washington out last fall and 2018 represents what figures to be the final chance to win it all (or even win A playoff series) with Harper before he gets a $400 million deal elsewhere (like Chicago??).

The 2018 Nationals have no holes. If any of their starters falter, they have Hellickson available. If any of their position players struggle, they have depth in the form of Kendrick (once Murphy is healthy), Montero, Adams, Wilmer Difo and Brian Goodwin.

And the bullpen is very, very good thanks to a bunch of moves before the 2017 Trade Deadline and also have Benoit and Koda Glover expected to start the season on the DL.

The Nationals will be playing in October this year. But what they do in the postseason is a question that won't be answered for 6 months. 

Prediction: 1st in NL East, playoffs

How Theo Epstein sees Chili Davis making a difference for Cubs

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USA TODAY

How Theo Epstein sees Chili Davis making a difference for Cubs

The Cubs can’t send Chili Davis out to face Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw, but team president Theo Epstein believes his presence will help the franchise’s young hitters next October.

Those pronounced playoff struggles against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers — on top of the way the New York Mets power pitchers overwhelmed the Cubs during that 2015 National League Championship Series sweep — led to a major shakeup of Joe Maddon’s coaching staff.

Firing hitting coach John Mallee isn’t really about what he didn’t do, because he worked nonstop across the last three years, overseeing an offense that actually scored more runs this season than the 2016 World Series team.

It’s more the instant credibility that Davis brings as a switch-hitter who made three All-Star teams and earned World Series rings with the 1991 Minnesota Twins and the last New York Yankees dynasty (1998-99).

Epstein initially brought Davis into the Boston Red Sox organization, hiring him as an overqualified hitting coach for Triple-A Pawtucket in 2011, the last season before sweeping changes would hit Fenway Park.

Davis spent the next six years as the big-league hitting coach for the Oakland A’s and Red Sox, working with players like Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi.

“Chili’s well-established as one of the very best hitting coaches in the game,” Epstein said after Thursday’s staff announcements. “His philosophy and approach happened to fit with what we hope will be the next step for many of our hitters. We talked after the season about hoping to get better with situational hitting, with our two-strike approach, with using the whole field, with having competitive, team-based at-bats.

“That happens to be Chili’s core philosophy — hitting line drives to the middle of the field. Your line drives will turn into home runs. He’s excellent at teaching a two-strike approach and teaching situational hitting. He’s really good at helping to get hitters to understand when an elite pitcher’s on his game, you have to sometimes take what he gives you, and have an adjustable swing, an adjustable approach for those situations.

“He’s got the gravitas of a 19-year career, 350 homers, over 1,300 RBIs. That combined with his excellent manner and ability to communicate with players makes him a really impactful figure.”

Mallee — who grew up as the son of a Chicago cop and graduated from Mount Carmel High School — brought stability to a position that used to have the job security of the drummer for Spinal Tap.

The Cubs wanted Mallee’s data-driven approach and the ability to explain heat maps and cold zones and how pitchers would attack each at-bat. Mallee also gave the Cubs a very accurate scouting report on Dexter Fowler before making that January 2015 trade with the Houston Astros.

During Mallee’s tenure, Kris Bryant became the fourth player in major-league history to be named MVP the season after winning Rookie of the Year honors. Ian Happ kept making enough adjustments to hit 24 home runs during his rookie season (with only 26 games of experience at Triple-A Iowa). Javier Baez made great strides this year — 23 homers, 75 RBI, .796 OPS — before an 0-for-20 tailspin to start the playoffs.

In one way, the Cubs even endorsed Mallee’s methods by promoting minor-league hitting coordinator Andy Haines to work with Davis as the assistant hitting coach. Mallee and Haines have a Miami connection after working in the Marlins organization.

“I would like to thank the Chicago Cubs for the amazing opportunity to be part of a great tradition and organization for the last three years,” Mallee wrote in a statement. “I left a great Houston Astros organization to be closer to home with my family and to help my hometown team win a World Series.

“We did that. I have no regrets and stand by my work. I wish nothing but the best for the Cubs organization and all the amazing people I met along the way, especially my hitters. See you from across the field.”

When the Cubs talk up their culture and the first-class organization they’ve built, there’s also an unspoken, underlying coldness to it all, even while making justifiable decisions. The Cubs publicly hailed Ricky Renteria basically up to the moment Maddon opted out of his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays and someone better came along.

Whether or not that will always be sustainable, Davis does have a great resume, no doubt. The Cubs are hoping Davis can help salvage the $184 million investment in Jason Heyward and rewire an offense that ranked last in batting average (.168) and on-base percentage (.240) among the 10-team playoff field. Outside of that unforgettable 9-8 thriller at Nationals Park, the Cubs scored 16 runs in nine postseason games.

“John Mallee is an outstanding hitting coach and we would not be in the position we’re in now with rings on our finger without him,” Epstein said. “Chili just happens to be, in our opinion, uniquely qualified for this group, at this moment in time, to help us get to the next level.”

Cubs get World Series flashbacks amid craziness of Max Scherzer meltdown

Cubs get World Series flashbacks amid craziness of Max Scherzer meltdown

WASHINGTON — All the beer and champagne flying across the visiting clubhouse at Nationals Park, the layers of cigar smoke floating around the room and all the mind-blowing aspects to this elimination game left Cubs players feeling like they just blacked out, not sure what really happened here in Washington as Thursday night turned into Friday morning.

Have you ever experienced anything like this before?

“Yeah, Game 7 of the World Series,” said Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs first baseman laughing and being serious at the same time.

This National League Division Series absolutely lived up to the hype. A Cubs team that spent most of the regular season looking a little bored or distracted — jonesing for this adrenaline rush — found a match in the Nationals. The unpredictability of a 9-8 game that lasted 4 hours and 37 minutes could be boiled down to the fifth inning and a total Max Scherzer breakdown.

“It was bizarro world, there’s no question about it,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “But it happens. It happens this time of the year.”

There’s an eerie banner facing out from the right-center-field deck at Nationals Park, a close-up shot of Scherzer’s blue and brown eyes, with a backward K and a K in each one, an artistic rendering of a two-time Cy Young Award winner with more than 2,100 career strikeouts.

Scherzer’s outsized presence loomed over this entire NLDS, from the hamstring “tweak” that would allow him to start only once in a best-of-five format, to the no-hitter he took into the seventh inning on a bad right leg in a Game 3 loss at Wrigley Field, to turning into Washington’s bullpen weapon, ready to end the reign of the defending World Series champs.

Except these Cubs are built for moments like this, the ones that will now haunt Scherzer, manager Dusty Baker and the rest of the Nationals until they outrun their reputation for underachieving in October — four first-round knockouts since 2012 — and ride in a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.

“We’ve been through it,” said Ben Zobrist, last year’s World Series MVP. “In those situations, we tend to start believing we’re going to get the job done, even if it doesn’t look like we are.”

Baker was in toothpick-chewing mode as the Nationals clung to a 4-3 lead in the fifth inning. Scherzer fired six pitches at Kris Bryant and Rizzo and quickly notched the first two outs. But an NLDS that already brought you Rizzo screaming “RESPECT ME!” and Baker’s Chicago mold conspiracy theory and The Stephen Strasburg Under The Weather Game was going to get weird.

Bat-flipping catcher Willson Contreras and the pinch-hitting Zobrist knocked back-to-back singles to set up Addison Russell, who bounced a two-run, go-ahead double down the left-field line, stunning and silencing the sellout crowd of 43,849.

“You got to believe that as a club we’re just going to find a way to do it,” Zobrist said. “We’ve done it so many times in the past now that you just start believing it’s going to happen again.

“That’s what great teams do. And we were able to pull out a crazy one.”

This is where the Nationals collapsed. Scherzer intentionally walked Jason Heyward, perhaps the least dangerous hitter in this lineup. Javier Baez swung and missed a strike three that went through the legs of catcher Matt Wieters, who chased after the ball and carelessly threw it into right field, allowing another run to score. Pinch-hitter Tommy La Stella then went to first base on a Wieters catcher interference. Scherzer drilled Jon Jay’s left knee with a pitch to make it 7-4.

Score it all as ... WTF?

“I would say that this is the most fun I’ve had playing in a baseball game,” Russell said. “It ranks right up there with winning the World Series, (coming back from) being down 3-1 in the World Series.

“Just to see the fight that my team had, (how) everyone's up there top-stepping every pitch. Just to see the energy, the flow within the dugout was ... I get chills just talking about it. It was awesome.”

The Cubs didn’t exactly go into cruise control from there, but they have an internal compass for when things go absolutely bonkers, like it did early and often and late in Game 5, remembering how they got here in the first place.

While the Nationals wonder, “Wait until next year?,” the Cubs don’t think like that anymore, focusing only on the next pitch and trying to treat each one like a separate event. That’s why they will be flying cross-country overnight to the West Coast on their third straight trip into the NL Championship Series and Saturday’s Game 1 at Dodger Stadium.

“It’s not easy to control your emotions,” Rizzo said. “We’re really good at going one pitch at a time, especially in these situations. We got to keep it going now. We’re going have some fun on the plane ride. We’re going to L.A. and have some fun.”