Trea Turner

6 main NLDS takeaways heading into Cubs-Nationals Game 3

6 main NLDS takeaways heading into Cubs-Nationals Game 3

The Cubs may be in the midst of a playoff race, but you wouldn't know it if you spent the morning/early afternoon at Wrigley Field Sunday.

The team's "workout" consisted of brunch and football on the field. In other words, they were doing exactly what a whole bunch of Chicagoland's 20- and 30-somethings were doing.

Kyle Schwarber spent five minutes talking the talk with reporters about the lack of pressure the Cubs are facing right now but he also walked the walk just a few minutes earlier when he showed no sign of feeling that weight. During "batting practice," Schwarber was drilled in the ribs by the young son of Cubs first-base coach Brandon Hyde and Schwarber retaliated by sprinting after the younger Hyde, playfully tackling him and throwing light punches.

Schwarber joked he was worried about a suspension after charging the mound. 

That's where these Cubs are at right now, on the eve of Jose Quintana's first career postseason start: a Game 3 date with NL Cy Young favorite Max Scherzer — who insists he's healthy enough to throw 100 pitches — and the high-powered Nationals offense in a series tied at one game apiece.

Here are some other key takeaways from Sunday entering the last few days of this NLDS:

Dusty doesn't live in the past

Dusty Baker is a household name around these parts, resonating with fans after nearly taking the 2003 Cubs to the first World Series in a lifetime.

Even though Baker is returning to the scene of the infamous Bartman incident and that NLCS meltdown, he wouldn't allow himself to truly get nostalgic.

But yes, he absolutely watched the Cubs finally win it all last fall.

"Oh, I was watching," Baker said Sunday afternoon. "I watch every game. I like watching baseball. Doesn't matter who's playing. I had some friends over there in Cleveland and some guys I know here that were here when I was here — [Cubs bullpen coach] Lester Strode and Bussy [Cubs strength coach Tim Buss] and some of those guys.

"I was neither rooting for them nor against them. I was just rooting for a good game, because I didn't have any skin in the game. I'm not a gambler. I just wanted a good time and that's what we got.

"Deep down inside, you know, we were one out or one pitch away from that possibly being us. But you can't live in the past."

Baker instead is focused on managing this Nationals team that found new life off one swing of Bryce Harper's bat Saturday evening in D.C.

Cubs lineup surprise?

Nobody will truly know how healthy Scherzer will be until the first few pitches of Monday evening's game when he actually gets to test his "tweaked" hamstring in game action.

But the Cubs have to prepare to face Scherzer like it's any other game he's started, which could mean a lineup surprise from Joe Maddon.

Scherzer is nasty from either side of the plate, but he's allowing a .215 average and .692 OPS against lefties this season while right-handers are hitting just .136 with a .425 OPS off the veteran.

In Game 1 against Stephen Strasburg, Maddon went with and outfield of Kyle Schwarber-Jason Heyward-Ben Zobrist, but indicated he could find another way to get a left-handed bat into the starting lineup against Scherzer.

"Yeah, I'm leaning towards that right now," Maddon said Sunday morning. "I mean, he's just so oppressively difficult versus right-handed hitters. I thought it might be wise to get one more lefty out there."

But who could it be?

There are several different possibilities, including Jon Jay and Ian Happ, with either Happ or Zobrist manning second base and Javy Baez potentially on the bench.

But Tommy La Stella could actually be the call here, as he's had success against Scherzer in a limited sample size — 3-for-6 with a double, triple and homer. Maddon could opt for La Stella in the leadoff spot, give him a couple at-bats and then get Baez into the game in the middle/latter innings.

That seems quite bold to bench Baez — a guy who can change a game in so many different ways with his baseball IQ, baserunning, defensive instincts or elite batspeed. But Baez is 0-for-5 all-time against Scherzer with three strikeouts and he could still enter the game in the fourth or fifth inning and make a huge impact.

But would the Cubs really want to bench a guy who started all 17 postseason games at second base last fall and was named the co-NLCS MVP?

It's also possible the Cubs could move Baez over to shortstop and sit Addison Russell. Or this could just be a smokescreen and a bit of gamesmanship by Maddon to give the Nationals something else to think about and prepare for.

Forgot about Trea

Heading into the series, Nationals shortstop and leadoff hitter Trea Turner was a huge talking point given his ability to change the game with his speed on the basepaths.

The Cubs reiterated several times in the days leading up to the NLDS that the best way to combat Turner's speed is to keep him off the bases.

That's exactly what they've done, as Turner has begun the postseason in an 0-for-8 slump, striking out four times.

Baker wouldn't even acknowledge that as a "mini-slump," however, indicating the hits could come in bunches for Turner, who has a career .304 batting average in the big leagues with 81 stolen bases in 198 games.

One big inning

The entire series shifted on two swings Saturday night, both coming in the eighth inning as the Cubs bullpen melted down and gave up a game-tying homer to Harper and the game-winning longball to Ryan Zimmerman.

The Nationals scored five runs on four hits and a walk in that eighth inning, but their offense has been completely silent in the other 16 innings of the NLDS.

If you take the eighth inning out of the equation, the Nationals have just one run and are putting up an .077 average with a .158 on-base percentage and .135 slugging percentage. 

The only run was Anthony Rendon's two-out line drive homer in the first inning of Game 2 — a ball that is only a hit 33 percent of the time based on exit velocity (96.4 mph) and launch angle.

The Cubs will throw Jose Quintana in Game 3 and Jake Arrieta in Game 4 and will have a completely rested bullpen, so they have every reason to feel good about the state of their pitching staff against a Washington lineup that has been completly baffled by these Cubs arms apart from that one inning.

Star power

However, the same can be said for the Cubs, who have really only received offensive production from Bryzzo — Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant — in the first two games of this series. 

The two franchise cornerstones have driven in five of the Cubs' six runs and combined for six hits in 12 at-bats.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Cubs offense has put up a miniscule .104 batting average (5-for-48) against the Nationals pitching staff.

Willson Contreras homered and Addison Russell has a pair of singles and a walk, but the Cubs will need the rest of the lineup to step up against Max Scherzer and Tanner Roark in the rest of this series if they're gonna advance to their third straight NLCS.

It's not how hard you get hit

These Cubs can take a punch, as we saw for a month straight last October.

Rizzo led the charge on the "Rocky" themed inspiration in fall of 2016 as the Cubs responded to relentless adversity on the road to ending the franchise's 108-year championship drought.

So it shouldn't be a surprise to anybody that there has been absolutely no sense of panic or frustration within the clubhouse of the defending champs, even after blowing a 3-1 lead and suffering a heartbreaking loss in Game 2.

"You're not gonna knock us down," Rizzo said. "We gave up a home run to Rajai Davis to tie the game in the 8th inning [in Game 7 of the World Series]. 

"It's part of the journey. You gotta embrace it. It's obviously not a good feeling to lose the way we did, but it's part of the experience."

Cubs vs. Nationals: Joe Maddon’s ‘Godfather’ urban legend about Mike Rizzo

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USA TODAY

Cubs vs. Nationals: Joe Maddon’s ‘Godfather’ urban legend about Mike Rizzo

Washington Nationals baseball boss Mike Rizzo grew up on Waveland Avenue and built a perennial playoff team in that image through old-school scouting more than sabermetrics, valuing guts and competitive nature and how those strong personalities would work together within a clubhouse.   

This is the family business. The son of a longtime scout, Rizzo keeps his father, Phil, around as a senior advisor who still takes in games at Wrigley Field, tracks potential postseason opponents and watches prospects in the Arizona Fall League.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon wasn’t surprised when Rizzo made the Oakland A’s and Minnesota Twins offers they couldn’t refuse, completely rebuilding the shaky Washington bullpen on the fly this summer by acquiring Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler.

“Rizz and I go way back,” said Maddon, who managed the Class-A infielder in 1982 in Salem, Oregon, where the California Angels had a branch of their farm system. “There was also a really good urban legend about a player that was no longer heard from after Rizzo had been released in spring training. The guy that was chosen in front of him was no longer to be found right after that.”

That Godfather-style line drew laughter from the reporters gathered in the Wrigley Field interview room before Wednesday’s workout, Maddon just warming up for the national media he will love to see this October.

“So the next day, Rizzo was reinstated,” Maddon said. “So we’re trying to find him. If anybody knows where Dave Govea is living right now, please let us know.”

After years of shrewd draft picks (Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon), trades (Gio Gonzalez, Trea Turner) and free-agent signings (Max Scherzer, Daniel Murphy), Rizzo’s bullpen moves fixed the one glaring weakness for a 97-win team that heads into a best-of-five National League Division Series against the defending World Series champs on Friday night at Nationals Park.

[MORE: Jon Lester won't concede anything: 'We should win the World Series'  

Another lasting image of Rizzo, a University of Illinois graduate who signed future Hall of Famer Frank Thomas for the White Sox:

“Rizz started a tremendous fight that we had vs. the Bend, Oregon Phillies,” Maddon said. “A play at the plate ended up against the backstop, Rizz was right in the middle of the whole thing. That’s who he was. He was a gritty player.”

How the Cubs plan to slow down Nationals speedster Trea Turner

How the Cubs plan to slow down Nationals speedster Trea Turner

There is so much star power and so many storylines to watch in the Cubs-Nationals NLDS. But 24-year-old Trea Turner - he of 198 career MLB games - could be the biggest game-changer.

Turner has 81 stolen bases while playing parts of the last three seasons with the Nationals, notching an 83.5 percent success rate.

Maybe more importantly, he has seven stolen bases in eight tries in four games against the Cubs this season.

He stole four bases in one game on June 27, swiping second and third off Jake Arrieta and Miguel Montero, prompting the rant that got Montero a one-way ticket out of town.

Against Willson Contreras, however, things are a bit different. Turner has three stolen bases off Contreras in three games, but he's also been caught once and the Cubs catcher also picked Turner off first base.

So yes, Contreras changes the landscape of the running game, even if he is only league average (27 percent) at throwing out would-be basestealers.

Joe Maddon knows game-changing speed is a nice advantage to have, but he wants his pitchers to keep their gameplan and not let their focus wander.

"It's just a matter of how you approach it," Maddon said. "Do you permit people like that to really alter your thinking from the pitching mound? Which I prefer not having happen. And then on top of that, when you have Willson catching, it takes a little bit of the edge off, knowing how well he can throw.

"...So as much as we're talking about [Turner], I know they're talking about Willson also. If you don't have Willson back there or somebody like that, [speed is] a great edge. Great edge. But I think Willson negates that a little bit, or puts some pause in their mind.

"Now from our pitcher's perspective, I prefer them worry about the hitter than the runner. But a major-league pitcher should be able to still do some different items before he delivers a baseball that helps control that part of it, which we will talk about. 

"At the end of the day, my lesson learned is that you really don't want to negatively impact the pitcher's thinking at the expense of a baserunner that maybe get put in a gap or over a wall."

Cubs fans have seen some of those different looks from pitchers over the last few years as Jon Lester has found a way to help slow the opponent's running game despite his "yips" with throwing over to first base.

Turner did steal a pair of bases off Lester and Contreras in June, but there's another factor working in the Cubs' favor: Turner's splits are pretty jarring, especially for a right-handed hitter. 

He is sporting just a .630 OPS against lefties, hitting .245 with a .311 on-base percentage. Against righties, he has hit all 11 of his homers to go along with a .296 average and .837 OPS.

Regardless of how the Cubs line up their NLDS rotation, they will be throwing two lefties out of the first four games (assuming the series is not a sweep for either side) as Jon Lester and Jose Quintana will both get a chance to start. 

The Cubs also will have southpaws Mike Montgomery and Brian Duensing in the bullpen and may choose to keep fellow lefty Justin Wilson on the roster, as well, despite his struggles over the last two months.

The Nationals, as a team, are almost completely neutral against opposing pitchers (.780 OPS vs. RHP, .787 OPS vs. LHP), but Turner's splits alone are intriguing.

If the Cubs keep Turner off base ahead of Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman, their chances at neutralizing the Nationals' high-powered offense goes up.

"He's really good. We saw that earlier in the year," Maddon said. "Always the best method is to keep him off base. That's the best way to corral somebody like him. We've run into that with Hamilton in our division. 

"There's some guys that are difference-makers when they get on the basepaths like he is. We'll have our gameplan and at the end of the day, you still wanna be more concerned with the guy at the plate as opposed to the guy on the base, too. I think the better baserunners split pitcher's concentration and you don't want to split to the point where the hitter gains an advantage."

The baseball world has seen what "speed do" in October with the Kansas City Royals' success in 2014 and 2015.

Maddon knows full well, too. During his time in Tampa Bay, the (Devil) Rays finished in the Top 6 in baseball in stolen bases every year from 2006-12. That includes leading the league in 2008-10 when Carl Crawford, B.J. (Melvin) Upton and Jason Bartlett led the charge, though current Cubs utility man Ben Zobrist (44 steals in those three years) and coach Eric Hinske (10 stolen bases in 2008) also chipped in.

"We tried to take advantage of it," Maddon said. "We pushed it, man. We kinda took pride at that time and I thought that it added to our edge because the other side was worried about us running all the time. And then there comes the edge. 

"So what I've learned is, don't let that happen to you. Don't worry so much about their basestealing that it takes you out of your pitching edge. 

"Listen, it can be very impactful, there's no question; I'm not denying that. But I don't want us to go into override regarding that as opposed to us doing what we do better."