Michael Taylor’s grand slam sent fans streaming toward the Wrigley Field exits in the eighth inning Wednesday night. It flipped this NLDS completely on its head. And it’s likely got Cubs fans in a gloomy mood as the team heads back to Washington for Thursday night’s do-or-die Game 5.
But while things might not seem to be going the Cubs’ way with the season and the quest for back-to-back World Series championships on the line, there are actually plenty of reasons to like the North Siders’ chances in this win-or-go-home fifth straight matchup with the Nationals.
1. Kyle Hendricks has been fantastic
The Cubs’ Game 1 starter is back on the hill in this elimination game, and there’s no pitcher on the roster the team would rather give the ball to in this situation.
Hendricks was stellar in the first game against the Nationals, besting the 10-strikeout outing of Stephen Strasburg, who took a no-hitter into the sixth inning. Hendricks pitched seven shutout innings, giving up just two hits and walking three.
But it’s not just his experience this postseason, but his experience from postseasons past. Hendricks pitched against Clayton Kershaw in the game that won the Cubs’ the pennant last fall, and he started opposite Corey Kluber in Game 7 of the World Series. In eight playoff starts in his career, Hendricks has a dazzling 1.98 ERA. This is guy is no stranger to — and he sure as heck isn’t bothered by — big games with the utmost meaning.
“You have to rely on your experience and having been in those situations,” Hendricks said Tuesday. “You know what the atmosphere is going to be like. You know what the crowd is going to be like. All those external factors, if you can kind of keep that under control, you know the pitching part. You know what to do once you get out on the mound.
“Being able to control all those external factors, I think, is going to be huge. But yeah, it will help me out. At the end of the day, it's just about making good pitches. That's where I need to mentally prepare, go out when it's Game 5, and just make good pitches.”
2. The Nationals still aren’t hitting
It might sound a little odd after a night where the Nationals won by a healthy 5-0 margin and had someone hit a grand slam, but the Nationals are still struggling mightily at the plate in this series.
Even including Taylor’s grand slam Wednesday night, the Nationals had just five hits in Game 4. They’re still just hitting .130 as a team against Cubs pitching, and they aren't getting on base much either, with a series on-base percentage of .241. Both of those numbers are postseason lows. Just two players on the team, Taylor and Ryan Zimmerman, have more than two hits on the series.
Nine of the 12 runs the Nationals have scored in this series have come in just two big innings — the eighth innings in Games 2 (five runs) and 4 (four runs). And two of those 12 runs have been unearned, the Nationals benefitting from errors made by Cubs fielders.
Could Wednesday night’s big fly off Taylor’s bat be the spark the Nationals have been looking for? Maybe. But that grand slam was only a grand slam because of the back-to-back walks issued by Carl Edwards Jr. If the Cubs can keep the walks down in Game 5 — they issued nine of them in Game 4 — the Nationals’ bats could still remain cold.
3. Jose Quintana is waiting in the wings
Joe Maddon declared after Game 4 that he plans to use Quintana on Thursday in the same way he used Jon Lester on Wednesday.
The skipper surprised a lot of people when he went to Lester in a game that wasn’t a must win Wednesday, trotting one of the best postseason pitchers ever out to the mound much like he did in Game 7 of last year’s World Series. And the move paid off, with Lester throwing three perfect innings and leaving with two outs in the eighth before the rest of the bullpen blew up behind him.
In fact, the most criticized of Maddon’s moves on social media after the game was taking Lester out.
While Hendricks is expected to be able to throw more than the four innings Jake Arrieta tossed in Game 4 — remember that Arrieta battled that hamstring issue throughout the last month — there’s a terrific backup plan waiting in Quintana.
Now, the lefty who came over in that midseason trade with the White Sox hasn’t made a relief appearance since his rookie season, but he had never pitched in the postseason before Monday’s Game 3 and he was great. He allowed just one unearned run in his 5.2 innings in that game, striking out seven and walking only one.
While Maddon might have gone into “must-win” mode a night early, using Lester and making him unavailable for Thursday night, Quintana is the next best option.
4. The Cubs got to Gio Gonzalez early in Game 2
While Dusty Baker somewhat surprisingly said he didn’t know who he would start Game 5 shortly after his team completed its season-extending victory Wednesday night, all signs point to Gio Gonzalez getting the ball for the Nationals.
Gonzalez pitched Game 2 of this series, a game the Cubs lost, but they did have success scoring off him early in the game, something they could not do against Strasburg (twice) or Max Scherzer. The Cubs scored three runs off Gonzalez — all three coming on a pair of homers, the only homers the Cubs have hit against Nationals pitching in this series. Willson Contreras and Anthony Rizzo socked those dingers, and you know they’ll be back in the middle of the Cubs’ lineup for Game 5.
Gonzalez is a formidable foe, of course, he of a 2.96 ERA and 15 wins during the regular season. But of the three starters they’ve faced this series, Gonzalez would seem to be the one most likely to get hit around by the Cubs. Certainly they haven’t been able to do that against Strasburg or Scherzer.
5. The Cubs’ bullpen is rested …
Cubs fans might not want to hear positives about the team’s relief corps a day after Edwards and Wade Davis combined for the second eighth-inning implosion of the series. But one thing the Cubs don’t have to worry about is relievers being unavailable.
Coming into Game 4, Edwards, Davis, Pedro Strop and Mike Montgomery were the only relief arms to pitch, what with the starters doing such a bang-up job. Well only the first two of those guys pitched Wednesday, with Brian Duensing and Justin Wilson making their first appearances of this series, as well. Thanks to Lester's efforts, none of those guys threw an obscene amount of pitches Wednesday night, meaning they should all be ready to go Thursday.
Montgomery has only faced four batters in the NLDS. And we’ve yet to even see John Lackey. Maybe we won’t with Quintana scheduled to relieve Hendricks. But Maddon figures to have plenty of options.
6. … and at least one key guy in the Nationals’ bullpen is not
Meanwhile, as good as Strasburg was Wednesday, the Nationals still turned to their bullpen for two innings of relief, and Baker went with the two best pitchers in his bullpen. Elite setup man Ryan Madson pitched the eighth, and closer Sean Doolittle pitched the ninth.
Those were not at all the wrong moves by Baker, but those guys had to work. Madson, especially, who put two guys on with a walk and a hit by pitch and ended up throwing 27 pitches. Also, Madson had a rough outing in Game 1, allowing a run and throwing 24 pitches to six batters in his inning of work. Doolittle had a 1-2-3 ninth inning in Game 4.
But the point is that both guys, should they be needed in Game 5, threw Wednesday, with one of them throwing a lot. If the Cubs are within striking distance with Madson on the mound late in the game, maybe his 51 pitches in his two outings this series catch up to him.
7. No more Stephen Strasburg
While the Cubs have to face another great starting pitcher in Gonzalez and could see Scherzer in relief, they get to avoid the guy who’s dominated them in two of the four games in this series.
In Game 4, Strasburg one-upped his own incredible performance from Game 1, striking out 12 Cubs hitters in seven shutout innings. And he did it all a day after feeling real bad with an illness of some kind.
Half of the Cubs’ 44 strikeouts in this series have come against Strasburg. The bats looked bad Wednesday, but they should look better Thursday considering you know who won’t be on the mound.
“We have to do a better job offensively,” Maddon said Wednesday night. “We scored limited runs, and their guy was outstanding. … Strasburg was that good. The changeup was spectacular. Hit that one ball good early to left field that the wind knocked down. Otherwise, we didn't have a good time against them.”
8. Due for some dingers … and some runs
The Cubs hit 223 home runs during the regular season, a top-10 mark in baseball. Six guys hit 20 homers or more. But through four games of this series, the Cubs have only hit two homers, both coming in Game 2 off the bats of Contreras and Rizzo.
It means they’re due, right?
The Cubs’ bats have been cold this series — nearly as cold as the frigid Nationals, if we’re being honest — thanks to the Nationals’ great pitching. But this team scored 822 runs during the regular season, fourth in the majors and second in the NL. The Cubs led the NL in on-base percentage and ranked second in walks.
While it’s expected that the Nationals would get some great pitching from some of the best arms in the game, it’s highly unusual that the Cubs’ offense would be this unproductive for this long. You’d figure that’s got to change sometime.
9. The Cubs have been here before
You might remember that this isn’t the Cubs’ first go-round in an elimination game.
They’ve won the last three of them, Games 5, 6 and 7 of last year’s World Series after falling into that 3-1 hole against the Cleveland Indians. And they won that NL wild card game back in 2015 against the Pittsburgh Pirates. That means the Cubs are a grand total of 4-1 in elimination games in the last three postseasons (the lone loss in Game 4 of the 2015 NLCS against the New York Mets).
There has been no shortage of big games over the last three seasons, as the Cubs have rarely had trouble rising to the occasion, ousting the St. Louis Cardinals in 2015 and the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers last season en route to that World Series win over the Indians.
Here’s another huge game.
“We have been here before,” Maddon said Wednesday night. “Our guys are ready to play. It's been a really interesting series. Both teams have reflected one other pretty closely and they got us tonight, and we just have to fly back east and try to get them tomorrow night.”
10. Because Carl Edwards said so
You heard the man.