Cubs feel the pressure will be on Nationals to prove they can deliver in playoffs

In a post-curse world, the Cubs could get swept out of the playoffs this October and still get a standing ovation walking off Wrigley Field. They would keep hearing thank you from the fans throughout the winter – and really the rest of their lives – and show up for spring training next February as the heavy favorite to win their division for the third year in a row.     

That might be the only area where the Cubs have a clear edge over a Washington Nationals team with a rotation up for Cy Young Award consideration, a lineup built around MVP candidates, a bullpen completely remodeled before the trade deadline…and zero postseason series wins since the franchise relocated from Montreal in 2005.  

That track record of regular-season success and playoff failures could change the entire psychology of the best-of-five National League Division Series that begins Friday night at Nationals Park. If the Cubs aren’t exactly playing with house money, they also won’t feel the same weight and desperation in trying to make history, repay generations of fans for their loyalty and secure their legacies.

“I definitely think there’s probably a little bit more pressure on them,” Ben Zobrist said after Tuesday afternoon’s workout at Wrigley Field. “They haven’t been out of this first series yet. And I think that obviously they’re very motivated to try to do that. They know it’s a very, very big moment for them and their organization.”

Spending 179 days in first place this year – after winning at least 95 games and division titles in 2012, 2014 and 2016 – means this question hangs over the Nationals: But can you do it in the playoffs?

Ex-Cubs manager Dusty Baker doesn’t have a contract for next season, which you think would be a slam-dunk decision about a natural leader who’s won 1,863 regular-season games – and only one NL pennant in 20-plus years.

Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant’s friendly rival from growing up in Las Vegas, will become a free agent after next season and loves trolling on social media, teasing the idea of signing the biggest contract in the history of professional sports and forming a super-team with KB in Wrigleyville.   

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Where the $155 million investment in Jon Lester has already paid for itself, the Nationals can’t expect to wring that many more All-Star seasons out of Max Scherzer’s seven-year, $210 million megadeal before the inevitable breakdown.  

Yet another Scott Boras client, Stephen Strasburg, is seven years removed from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow – and in the first season of a $175 million contract extension that runs into 2023 (and contains deferred money through 2030).  

The decision to shut down Strasburg in September 2012 – as inclusive and well-meaning as it may have been – created a perception of an organization with a sense of entitlement.

Strasburg, the likely Game 1 starter while Scherzer deals with a right hamstring issue, has made one playoff start in his entire career, a five-inning loss at home to an even-year San Francisco Giants team that would win the 2014 World Series.

“For us, it’s still a big moment,” Zobrist said. “We plan on doing this for a long time to come. You basically have a team that’s up and coming and really trying to make their mark for the first time in the postseason. And you got a team that has proven they’re exciting to watch and knows how to win.

“We want to become the dominant force in Major League Baseball.”

Zobrist changed the culture around the Cubs after winning the 2015 World Series with the Kansas City Royals, turning down the Nationals to sign a four-year, $56 million contract and come home to Illinois. (The Nationals shrewdly pivoted and signed the new Mr. October, Daniel Murphy, who killed the Cubs when the New York Mets swept them out of the 2015 NL Championship Series.)

Zobrist became the World Series MVP after the Cubs dug out of a 3-1 hole against the Cleveland Indians, winning an unforgettable 10-inning Game 7 on the road.

“A mind once stretched has a difficult time going back to its original form,” manager Joe Maddon said. “You just have a better feel or understanding of the situation you’re going into. You are, in a sense, slightly more comfortable with it and (know) what it feels like.

“Once you’ve done it before, you’re not as intimidated by the moment.”

It’s not just muscle memory from 2016. The Cubs could lead off Game 1 with a veteran hitter who played in 58 postseason games with the St. Louis Cardinals and earned a World Series ring with their 2011 team (Jon Jay) and end it with an All-Star closer who notched the final out of the 2015 World Series for the Royals (Wade Davis).

“It’s huge,” Jay said. “Every year you do this, you get a little more familiar with family stuff and friends and everything that entails with the media. It’s a brighter stage and it all gets magnified. Everything’s bigger.

“Every year you do this, it’s an experience you get better and better at.”  

Or the anxiety can keep growing and growing. After more than a century of disappointment, the Cubs have completely changed their identity, no longer facing the same old questions or bracing for something to go wrong.   

“In Bryce Harper’s opinion, they’re the favorites,” said Anthony Rizzo, the face-of-the-franchise first baseman. “In (Cody) Bellinger’s opinion, the Dodgers are the favorites. You just got to go out and play.

“We’ve been there. We’ve done it. We’ve had a lot of different scenarios. We’ve been up games. We’ve been down games. We’ve been up in the series. We’ve been down in the series. We’re as battle-tested as you can get going into the playoffs.

“But it’s all about if that bounce is going to go your way, if you’re going to get the big hit or if you make that big pitch in the big moment."