It's survive and advance time.
After splitting at Wrigley, the two teams are locked at two games apiece, and it comes down to which one wins in Washington tonight. The series going five games should not be terribly surprising; these teams are evenly matched.
Tonight the Cubs will see Gio Gonzalez again, who was formidable in game two, even though the Cubs touched him up for two home runs and three runs altogether. Having a second look in a series has almost always been a good thing for the Cubs offense, but Gonzalez will still be a challenge. Before game two, I cited the Cubs' history against Gonzalez, but it should be noted that it is not an extensive one for any of them. Jason Heyward has 39 plate appearances against him, but he has hit just .216 with only one extra-base hit.
Whatever lineup Joe Maddon chooses, the offense has been mostly anemic all series, but we have seen them do this many times in the past only to burst with a torrent of runs. The obvious hope is that that's what happens tonight.
The pressure is much more on the Nationals, who have yet to progress beyond the division series in their history, so winning tonight would exorcise a lot of organizational demons.
They also have to try and do this against Kyle Hendricks who, with his now-typical quiet brilliance, has made himself virtually unhittable in the postseason. He has a 1.98 ERA in the playoffs, and he is no stranger to pitching a decisive game in a postseason series. He is fully rested as well, not having pitched since game one last Friday.
Here's how the Cubs bullpen has been used in this series:
And here's the Nationals:
Final thoughts and shameless plugs:
It's pretty simple. The postseason is an awful hill to climb, and even the best teams in baseball struggle mightily to advance through the early rounds (just ask the Cleveland Indians this year), and moving on guarantees only greater challenges. The Cubs have a wealth of postseason experience to draw from in the past two years, and undoubtedly that works somewhat to their advantage. I am loathe to make predictions, but I feel at ease about tonight. Cubs win and advance.
Shameless plug time: I had the great privilege of covering NLDS games three and four at Wrigley, and should the Cubs advance, I'll be credentialed for the NLCS and World Series in Chicago. In the meantime, here's my story on game three with a few great quotes from Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora, Jr., and here's my story from last night that is mostly Nationals-centric, but Joe Maddon has a few words in there. I also, just before the postseason started, talked to Mike Freeman about his wild experience playing for eight teams in two years.