Minus Top Starters Nationals Win Series from Cubs
In what many pegged as a preview of the National League Division Series, the Nationals and Cubs met in Wrigley for a 3 game series over the weekend. With the Dodgers clearly ahead of the pack in the National League and likely to meet the wild-card game winner, the Cubs and Nats seem to have already been locked in to the series even this early in August. This despite the fact that the Cubs just recently went ahead in the National League Central and maintain only a slim lead over the Brewers and others in the Central. Both teams really beefed up leading up the trade deadline seemingly in preparation to face the other in the playoffs. The Cubs picked up a frontline starter in Jose Quintana from the White Sox and back of the bullpen help in Justin Wilson from the Tigers (with Alex Avila also added into the deal as catching depth behind Wilson Contreras). The Nationals meanwhile, remade their bullpen picking up 3 shutdown relievers to help stabilize their late-game woes and a sneaky good bench piece in Howie Kendrick.
The highly-anticipated matchup quickly fizzled when Dusty Baker announced that Max Scherzer and Gio Gonzalez would both miss their scheduled starts as Scherzer was recovering from neck spasms while Gio was on paternity leave in anticipation of the birth of his second child. The Cubs had two of their top four starters lined up in Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester sandwiched between John Lackey, who started on Saturday. Given the circumstances, you could forgive the Nationals for dropping the series or even getting swept since the Nationals countered with journeyman Edwin Jackson and rookie Erick Fedde following Tanner Roark’s turn in the rotation. Daniel Murphy crushed two homeruns on Friday afternoon as the Nationals revamped bullpen shut things down after Roark’s solid 6.1 innings of work.
Bryce Harper went deep in the first inning against John Lackey on Saturday, but Edwin Jackson continued his hot and cold pattern by giving up 4 runs in 5 innings and Matt Grace gave up two more in the sixth as the Nats dropped the middle game of the series. Facing Jon Lester on Sunday, Erick Fedde was solid, but unspectacular as the Nationals went into the eighth inning trailing 5-3. The middle of the order then came up and turned the game around loading the bases for Anthony Rendon, who promptly was hit by a pitch and drove in a run. A struggling Matt Wieters came to the plate looking to tie the game or give his team the lead. He did one better, driving the first pitch out to centerfield for a grand slam to give the Nats the lead. Brian Goodwin padded the lead with a solo home run in the ninth and Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle shut things down once again as the Nationals took the series in Wrigley.
So, what did this series really tell us? In actuality, not very much given the state of the Nationals rotation during this series and that the lineup is still without Trea Turner, Jayson Werth, and Michael A. Taylor. The Nationals also faced John Lackey, who will most likely not be a part of the playoff rotation for the Cubbies. With the revamped bullpen looking sharp however, it must be comforting for Nats fans to watch a finally stabilized back of the bullpen. Kendrick also has given the Nats a true 2-hole hitter in front of Harper, Zimmerman, and Murphy until the return of Werth. Kendrick’s flexibility also gives the Nationals a chance to rest as many as 6 regulars down the stretch and a solid backup plan should Werth’s injury continues to linger into the playoffs. What is certain though is that the Nationals and Cubs (should they hold on to their lead in the Central) will provide a memorable division series.