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NLDS Preview: Cubs, Nationals are the same, but totally different

In terms of talent, the Chicago Cubs and Washington Nationals may be the most evenly matched teams meeting in the LDS. Where the Cubs have Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez, the Nationals ably counter with Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon and Daniel Murphy, and that’s just a sampling of the star power involved.

In terms of promise fulfilled though, these teams couldn’t be farther apart.

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On one side, the Cubs will enter with the weight of the world no longer on their shoulders. They completed the ultimate mission last season, winning the franchise’s first World Series championship since 1908. The biggest question they will face now is can they go from 108 years without a title, to winning two straight.

On the other side, it’s put-up-or-shut-up time for the Nationals. Considered strong contenders since 2012, the Nationals have yet to advance beyond the NLDS during that time frame. Their disappointments have included two Game 5 losses and two seasons where they somehow missed the playoffs completely. This postseason might represent their best, and perhaps final, chance to reach their destiny.

When the bell rings Friday, those two narratives will collide. Just don’t get fooled into thinking one team will be hungrier, more desperate or more fragile than the other.

It might seem like the Cubs are playing with house money. The additions they’ve made and the urgency they’ve played with during the second half tell a different story. They are all in, and that might just make them the team to beat again on the NL side. The Nationals are all-in too, and their sense of urgency is palpable. With Bryce Harper’s free agency looming next winter, they have to strike. They can’t afford not to. But to take the next step they’ll have to take down the champions.

SCHEDULE
Game 1: Friday, Oct.6, in Washington, 7:31 p.m. ET (TBS)
Game 2: Saturday, Oct. 7, in Washington, 5:38 p.m. ET (TBS)
Game 3: Monday, Oct. 9, in Chicago, TBA (TBS)
Game 4*: Tuesday, Oct. 10, in Chicago, TBA (TBS)
Game 5*: Thursday, Oct. 12, in Washington, TBA (TBS)

PREVIOUSLY
The Nationals took the season series 4-3 after splitting a four-game series at home to end June and taking two of three in Chicago in early August. Both series took place before the Cubs really got rolling to take command of the NL Central.

The Game 1 pitching matchup will featured Chicago’s Kyle Hendricks versus Washington’s Stephen Strasburg. (AP Photos)

PITCHING
Game 1: Kyle Hendricks (7-5, 3.03) vs. Stephen Strasburg (15-4, 2.52)
Game 2: Jon Lester (13-8, 4.33) vs. Gio Gonzalez (15-9, 2.96)
Game 3: Max Scherzer (16-6, 2.51) at Jose Quintana (11-11, 4.15)
Game 4*: TBA at Jake Arrieta (14-10, 3.53)
Game 5*: TBA

Joe Maddon had four legitimate candidates to start Game 1. He ultimately decided to go with 2016 postseason hero Kyle Hendricks, who was also his choice for Game 7 of last year’s World Series. All four of Chicago’s scheduled NLDS starters have struggled at various points. Lester and Hendricks both spent time on the DL, but each seems to be in a good place now. If Maddon can consistently get six or seven innings from these guys, it will help him bridge the gap to shutdown closer Wade Davis.

The Nationals initially seemed confident that Max Scherzer’s hamstring tweak during his final regular season start wouldn’t be an issue. Barring anything changing, Scherzer is expected to pitch in Game 2. If he’s out there, you can bet the Cubs will test his health and mobility every chance they get. The good news is Washington still has Strasburg, who quietly had his best season in 2017, posting 15 wins and a 2.52 ERA. Gio Gonzalez was just as good, winning 15 with a 2.96 ERA. Tanner Roark will be next in line if Washington needs a Scherzer replacement or fourth starter.

Thanks to their mid-season additions of Sean Doolittle, Brandon Kintzler and Ryan Madson, the Nationals should have the slightly deeper bullpen. That could be where this series is decided.

Cubs closer Wade Davis has been a key addition. They’ll need his success to continue in the postseason. (Getty Images)

THREE KEYS FOR CUBS
The Wade Davis effect: It didn’t seem like Cubs fans were entirely behind the idea of trading slugging outfielder Jorge Soler to Kansas City for one year of Wade Davis. That shouldn’t be the case anymore. Davis was among baseball’s top closers in 2017, notching 32 saves in 33. In fact, he was perfect right up until his final save chance on Sept. 23 in Milwaukee. He’s the weapon Joe Maddon needed after Aroldis Chapman left in free agency. Getting to him could prove to be a challenge if Chicago’s starters falter, but any lead should feel safe once the ball gets in Davis’ hand.

Win Game 1: Obviously the goal here is to win three games before the opponent, regardless of the order. But the Cubs could really do some damage by stealing Game 1. First of all, any playoff win on the road is a major boost. Beyond all that, it would make Washington have to fight from behind again, which is something they haven’t been able to handle effectively in past postseason appearances.

Solve the Daniel Murphy problem: If not for Daniel Murphy’s remarkable postseason in 2015, we might be talking about a potential Cubs three-peat. The then-Mets second baseman was a one-man wrecking crew, hitting .529 with four homers and six RBIs against them during the Mets four-game sweep of 2015 NLCS. Murphy has had their number this season too, hitting .360. The Cubs have to slow him down.

Bryce Harper is back after suffering a late-season knee injury. But will he be effective? (AP)

THREE KEYS FOR NATIONALS
Bryce Harper’s knee: Harper has passed every physical test since suffering an ugly-looking bone bruise in his knee. He might not be one-hundred percent, but his mere presence in Washington’s lineup makes everyone around him better and gives them better opportunities. The Cubs have proven in the past that they’re willing to work around Harper, so he could be on base a lot. If he avoids a setback he’ll make a difference in the series one way or another.

Support their aces: Assuming Scherzer’s hamstring holds up, the Nationals rotation will be as healthy as it’s ever been heading into a postseason. The team arguably has three aces in Scherzer, Strasburg and Gonzalez, which is a huge advantage in a short series. Still, Washington’s offense can’t afford to go stagnant. The lineup has a little more versatility now that Trea Turner is back and Michael Taylor is getting more comfortable. They should be able to score without relying on the long ball, and chances are they’ll have to.

The bullpen must hold up: The Nationals know better than anyone how much a bad bullpen can torpedo a season, and especially a postseason run. That’s why the effort was made to add veterans like Doolittle and Kintzler to provide depth and experience. Above everything though, they just need effectiveness and reliability. This series should produce some tight games, so Washington’s success could ride on the bullpen’s success.

FIVE IMPORTANT NUMBERS
• 13 — The number of times Chicago walked Bryce Harper during a four-game series in Chicago in May of 2016. Four were “intentional,” though it was clear what the Cubs strategy was then and will be now if Harper gets hot. Worth noting, Harper walked only three times in 33 plate appearances against Chicago this season, so it’s based on performance and maybe even feel by Maddon.

• 0.98 — Stephen Strasburg’s ERA since the All-Star break. It’s the fourth-best second-half ERA in MLB history.

• 62 — The number of bases stolen by the Cubs this season. Washington’s Trea Turner stole 45 by himself despite missing 65 games.

• .198 — The collective career batting average of current Cubs position players against Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez.

• 36 — Years since the Washington Nationals, then known as the Montreal Expos, have advanced to the NLCS.

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Mark Townsend is a writer for Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at bigleaguestew@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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