Last night was a dejecting loss. It felt like the universe had stolen something from this franchise. You can pick who you want to blame for the rainout, but the events that allowed for the Nationals to avoid one of the weakest parts of their postseason roster seems a cruel stroke of fate. A home run at a critical point landing in a basket when a better struck ball became a harmless flyball early. Ryan Zimmerman be given one more chance than he probably deserved. I could go on, but needless to say for many of us it was a gloomy night.
This morning was different. This is a team that has faced off season ending games and come through in the most spectacular of fashions. The Cubs have quite a few things going for them as they head into yet another do or die game. And it starts with the guy taking the ball tonight.
Cubs Starting Pitching
Kyle Hendricks has been unbelievable down the stretch for the Cubs. He matched and then outlasted Stephen Strasburg in game 1. Cubs starters have thrown 22.2 innings and given up exactly 1 earned run. You can stretch those numbers to 26.1 innings and 2 earned runs if you want to tack on Lester's performance last night. That would be an ERA of 0.40 and 0.68 respectively over 4 games. Kyle Hendricks should continue that trend.
Ben Zobrist's Lazarus Act
Ben Zobrist has hit .200 in the series with a .533 OPS. He has often looked brutal at the plate an in the field. However, Ben Zobrist has also delivered two of the Cubs seven extra base hits in the series. Zobrist made a sparkling defensive play at second base in game 3 (it may have been less sparkling if Javier Baez was out there who makes the play look a bit more routine). Zobrist played a fine defensive outfield last night in tough conditions. Zobrist may have only gone 2 for 5 with two strikeouts since finding the fountain of youth late in game 3, but he has two of the Cubs seven hits against Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer. His bat has shown more life and he no longer looks out of place in a postseason lineup.
The Kris Bryant Adjustment
There are very few players on either side having a good offensive series. The few players who have hit home runs have slugging inflated OPS, but no one has been a consistent offensive force facing these hurlers. One Cub that has had a particularly rough series is Kris Bryant. The golden sombrero was the cherry on top of his .200 batting average and .517 OPS in the series. Bryant has now struck out in 60% of his plate appearances in the series. However, Bryant is able to adjust quickly. In his career, Bryant is known for his ability to adjust quickly, and I think the odds are high that Bryant facing someone based Stephen Strasburg or Max Scherzer will make another quick adjustment.
Justin Wilson Confidence Booster
There was little to get excited about in the game yesterday. The bullpen in particular had a glaringly bad night. The two guys that Maddon has trusted the most both had horrible nights. Wade Davis should be fine moving forward, but Carl Edwards Jr. continues to oscilate between being Mariano Rivera and Carlos Marmol at the end of his Cubs tenure. This gave Joe Maddon a chance to use Justin Wilson in a low pressure situation against a left handed Daniel Murphy and then Anthony Rendon. Wilson looked strong retiring the pair, and that has to be a huge plus if Wilson can reemerge as an effective high leverage option.
The Shell of Bryce Harper
The Nationals bats have been ice cold throughout the series. The one Nationals hitter with an OPS over .700 right now is Michael A Taylor. The pesky gnat has hit .273 with a .930 OPS after his game clinching grand slam last night. Bryce Harper though is clearly still feeling the effects of the bone bruise. Harper's bat has been slow and unable to catch up to well placed and no so well placed heaters. Harper's one shining moment came in the series when Carl Edwards Jr., better known as Crawford to one national broadcaster, hung a curveball over the heart of the plate. Having to face a clearly not one hundred percent Harper is a huge bonus for the Cubs staff.
Neutralizing the Run Game
The Nationals are a good team. Scratch that they are a very good team, but the Cubs have caught them at a good time it seems given their injury woes. The Nationals ripped through the National League with a top tier offense. The team could score in a variety of ways with the all world base stealer Trea Turner at the top. Turner finally snapped out of his Oh-fer, and if he does manage to get on base he should be neurtalized by the battery of Kyle Hendricks and Willson Contreras. Hendricks has perhaps the best pickoff move of a right handed pitcher in the game right now, and Contreras doesn't know how to throw it less than 90 mph. That means that the Nationals are either going to have to get a long ball or string a few hits together. That is a tall task against Hendricks right now.
The final silver lining is the randomness of baseball. That might seem like a drawback as the Cubs have the clearly better pitching matchup, but it is also a silver lining. The Cubs were very close to winning the game last night despite what the scoreline said. The season is one game long at this point, and anything can happen. The Cubs are a very good team and still have a very good chance to reach the National League Championship Series for a third year in the row despite what the universe might've said earlier this week.