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With contractual decisions looming, Nats missed chance at stress-free World Series run

With contractual decisions looming, Nats missed chance at stress-free World Series run

"This is the year."

That's the motto for almost every D.C. sports fan when their team is headed for the postseason.

The Nats led a weak NL East the entire season and clinched a spot to play October baseball early into September.

RELATED: COUNTLESS ERRORS DOOM NATIONALS IN SEASON-ENDING LOSS

The team overcame the obstacle of being plagued with injuries and with pitchers like Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer having a strong bullpen to back them up, the stars were aligning for the team to go all the way.

But now with players like Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy having contracts up for grabs in 2019, Nationals reporter Chelsea Janes says 2017 was really the last chance for the team to win a stress-free title.

"I think those questions you've raised like Bryce [Harper's] contract, [Daniel} Murphy may be leaving, you know Rizzo's contract's up after next year, I think those are the things they didn't have to deal with this year that made this such a free chance," Janes said on the Sports Junkies Friday.

"It was a free chance to just feel good and do it now and not have everyone say this is your absolute last chance, and next year it's their absolute last chance for a little while, I think."

"I mean they're not going to be awful in '19, but they're going to be different and I think they've sort of wasted their free pass here and there's legitimate and kind of unrelenting pressure on them next year to make it happen."

It's hard to make sense of what a team will look like one day after a devastating series loss. One thing that is fairly certain is that time is ticking for the Nats to make it happen with arguably the most talented group of players they've ever had.

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Strasburg spins gem, Taylor hits grand slam to force Game 5 vs. Cubs

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USA Today Sports Images

Strasburg spins gem, Taylor hits grand slam to force Game 5 vs. Cubs

CHICAGO (AP) -- Stephen Strasburg shook off an illness and all doubts about his mettle while pitching seven dominant innings, Michael A. Taylor hit a late grand slam and the Washington Nationals beat the Chicago Cubs 5-0 on Wednesday to send their NL Division Series to a decisive Game 5.

The teams packed up at Wrigley Field and headed back to Washington for Game 5 Thursday night. Kyle Hendricks starts for the World Series champion Cubs after throwing seven sharp innings in a 3-0 victory over Strasburg in Game 1. Gio Gonzalez is the likely starter for the Nationals, with Max Scherzer lurking in the bullpen.

Strasburg got sick after his terrific performance in the playoff opener on Friday, and the Nationals had planned to go with Tanner Roark even after a persistent rain washed out Game 4 on Tuesday. 

That led to a flurry of comments and criticism about whether the ace had the stuff to pitch in big moments.

But Strasburg felt better when he woke up Wednesday and told manager Dusty Baker he wanted the ball with Washington's season on the line.

That was all Baker needed to hear.

Standing tall as clouds of mist rolled through the old ballpark, Strasburg struck out 12, allowed three hits and walked two in his first career postseason win. He pitched well enough to win Game 1, too, giving up three hits and fanning 10 in seven innings, but a pair of unearned runs saddled him with the loss.

This time, another costly error for Chicago brought home Washington's first run, and Taylor broke it open with a grand slam off Wade Davis in the eighth.

Chicago wasted a gutsy performance from Jake Arrieta and solid relief by Game 2 starter Jon Lester in its first home playoff loss since Game 4 of the World Series last year. NL MVP Kris Bryant struck out four times, and the defending champs went 0 for 6 with runners in scoring position.

Arrieta walked five in four innings in his return from a hamstring injury, but limited Washington to an unearned run and two hits. Lester got the Cubs all the way to the eighth, picking off Ryan Zimmerman before departing after Daniel Murphy's two-out single.

But Chicago's bullpen faltered from there. Carl Edwards Jr. walked two in a row and threw ball one to Taylor before he was replaced by Davis. Taylor then drove a 1-1 pitch into the basket overhanging the brick wall in right field for his first career homer in the playoffs.

Ryan Madson worked the eighth and Sean Doolittle finished the three-hitter, giving the NL East champions a chance to avenge years of playoff heartache.

Washington also made it to the playoffs in 2012, 2014 and 2016 and fell in the first round each time, including five-game losses to St. Louis in 2012 and Los Angeles last season.

The Nationals jumped in front in the third, taking advantage of a Chicago error for the second straight game. Trea Turner doubled with one out for his first hit of the series and advanced on a wild pitch. Jayson Werth struck out looking before Arrieta walked Bryce Harper, putting runners on the corners.

Ryan Zimmerman, who leads the Nationals with four RBIs, followed with a slow roller to shortstop. Addison Russell charged the ball, but he couldn't bring it in.

It was Chicago's sixth error of the series, and reliever Brian Duensing picked up another one on an errant throw in the ninth.

Left fielder Kyle Schwarber committed two errors on one play in Game 3, setting up Washington's only run in a 2-1 loss.

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Scherzer or Strasburg? Mike Rizzo still unsure of NLDS Game 1 starting pitcher

Scherzer or Strasburg? Mike Rizzo still unsure of NLDS Game 1 starting pitcher

The Nationals are two days away from hosting the reigning World Series champs, the Chicago Cubs, in Game 1 of the National League Division Series. 

General manager Mike Rizzo has made adjustments all season long to get his team to this spot. One thing he is still unsure of though is who will take the mound on Friday night. 

RELATED: PREVIEWING NATS VS. CUBS

The obvious starter would be the teams ace Max Scherzer, but he is currently dealing with a '"tweaked" hamstring. Scherzer insist he will be pitching in the NLDS but if he can't start Game 1, who will?

"You know, we're not sure yet," Rizzo said on the Sports Junkies Wednesday.

"We haven't made the decision. We certainly haven't made the announcement."

"Max is not only our number one starter, he's probably the number one starter in the league and maybe in baseball. If he's capable of pitching Game 1, he's the Game 1 starter. If we feel it's beneficial for him to get an extra day or two days to rest the hamstring and prepare for Game 2 or Game 3 , we would certainly be open to that."

Having your number one pitcher not feeling 100 percent would send any other team into a frenzy, but luckily for the Nats, their depth at that position is one of the strongest in the league.

"The good thing about our club is that we have two number one pitchers with Stras and Max and we're fortunate to have that option. When you run the hottest pitcher in baseball out there Game 1 and Stephen Strasburg, that's not the worst thing in the world. We'll take that any day of the week."

RELATED: STRASBURG AND DOOLITTLE WIN NL AWARDS

So, will the possible delay of Scherzer's start affect how Mike Rizzo and Dusty Baker set the Nats' lineup? 

"I think going into this, injuries or how people feel, will affect the people that you put on the roster. Your extra players and that type of thing. I think that Max's situation is such that we feel good about where he's at. I don't think it would correlate any other move because of the hamstring."

"But, we still haven't decided on the last one or two players on the roster. It's going to be contingent on how people progress. You know, we're looking at Brian Goodwin in the workouts here to see how he's feelings, how he's moving, how he's running, and some other different guys, you know, on taking the last piece of that roster and see how it will improve us for a short, five-game series." 

The Nationals are set to take on the Cubs at Nats Park Friday at 7:31p.m. on TBS.