Opposite dugout: Defending champion Cubs begin postseason with bull’s-eye on their backs

cubs-logo.jpgManager: Joe Maddon (4th season)

Record: 92-70 (won NL Central)

Who to watch: 3B Kris Bryant (.295/.409/.537 with 29 HR, 73 RBIs), 1B Anthony Rizzo (32 HR, 109 RBIs), C Willson Contreras (23 HR, 75 RBIs), LF Kyle Schwarber (30 HR, 59 RBIs), RHP Kyle Hendricks (7-5, 3.03 ERA), RHP Jake Arrieta (14-10, 3.53 ERA), LHP Jon Lester (13-8, 4.33 ERA), RHP Wade Davis (2.30 ERA, 32 saves)

Season series vs. Nationals: 3-4

Pitching probables:

Oct. 6: RHP Kyle Hendricks vs. RHP Stephen Strasburg, 7:31 p.m., TBS
Oct. 7: LHP Jon Lester vs. LHP Gio Gonzalez, 5:38 p.m., TBS
Oct. 9: RHP Max Scherzer vs. LHP Jose Quintana, TBA, TBS
Oct. 10: RHP Tanner Roark vs. RHP Jake Arrieta, TBA, TBS (if necessary)
Oct. 12: Hendricks or Lester vs. Strasburg, TBA, TBS (if necessary)

Inside the Cubs:

The Cubs are no longer baseball’s feel-good story, and no one cares that last year’s World Series title ended a Fall Classic drought that dated to 1908. They’ve now got a bull’s-eye on their backs, and the Nationals are taking aim, trying to win their first postseason series after being ousted in the National League Division Series three times in the past five years. The Cubs will be a formidable opponent, full of power bats, decent arms, a plethora of bullpen options and Joe Maddon - the guy former Nats skipper Davey Johnson once called a “weird wuss” for his reliance on advanced metrics and oddball motivational tactics - at the helm. If not for notorious fan Steve Bartman’s ill-advised attempt to snag a foul ball in the National League Championship Series in 2003, current Nats skipper Dusty Baker might have been the guy to break the streak; he was piloting the Cubs then. But the Cubs, who won 92 games in 2017, have reached the postseason in three straight years under Maddon and they’re hoping to become the first team to claim back-to-back World Series titles since the Yankees won three straight from 1998-2000. The regular season may mean little, but the Cubs ended on a good run, winning 15 of their final 19 games.

Maddon is a master of playing the percentages and crafting a lineup specifically for an opponent’s starter, often going with his gut feeling in opposition to what the stats say. But there are some sure things in the Cubs order. Third baseman Kris Bryant may have fallen off a bit from last year’s MVP campaign - his power numbers dipped from 39 homers and 102 RBIs in 2016 to 29 homers and 73 RBIs this season - but his .295/.409/.537 slash line shows he’s still dangerous. First baseman Anthony Rizzo led the Cubs with 32 homers and 109 RBIs, but he and Bryant aren’t the only dangerous bats Nats pitchers will have to maneuver around. Catcher Willson Contreras slugged 21 homers and drove in 74 runs, left fielder Kyle Schwarber shook off an in-season demotion to the minors to finish with 30 homers (six of them coming in his final 16 games) and rookie Ian Happ went deep 24 times. Happ and Javier Báez (23 homers, 75 RBIs) can play multiple positions, giving Maddon flexibility and making it difficult for the Nats to game plan against the Cubs. The South Siders scored the fourth-most runs in the majors (822), boasted the fourth-best on-base percentage (.338), had the game’s seventh-best slugging percentage (.437) and slugged the ninth-most homers (223) in 2017.

The Cubs will throw left-handers at the Nats in two of the first three games of the best-of-five series, following Kyle Hendricks in Friday’s opener at Nationals Park. Hendricks lost about six weeks of the season to a hand injury, and wasn’t able to replicate his league-leading 2.13 ERA from 2017, but his 3.03 mark in 24 starts is nonetheless impressive. He worked at least six innings in eight straight starts from Aug. 15-Sept. 23, and is 2-2 with a 2.67 ERA in five career starts against Washington. Jon Lester gets the call for Saturday’s Game 2, and it’ll be interesting to see how a southpaw who has trouble throwing to first will combat Nats speedster Trea Turner. Lester’s 4.33 ERA in 32 starts might not seem too impressive, but he was able to finish 13-8, including a 5-1 record in six September starts. Lester has significant postseason experience between the Red Sox and Cubs, going 9-7 with a 2.63 ERA in 22 games (19 starts) in his career. He’s 1-0 with a 3.00 ERA in two lifetime starts at Nationals Park, and 2-1 with a 2.79 ERA in six career starts against the Nats. The Cubs acquired Game 3 starter José Quintana from the White Sox on July 13 to fortify their rotation, and he went 7-3 with a 3.74 ERA in 14 starts for his new team. But this will be Quintana’s first foray into the postseason and he’s never faced the Nationals (who will likely lean on the lefty’s former White Sox teammate, Adam Eaton, for a scouting report). From Aug. 14 to Sept. 29, Quintana went 8-1 with a 3.48 ERA in nine starts. Should the series go to a fourth game, it’ll be righty Jake Arrieta for the Cubs. The 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner, Arrieta was limited to three September starts because of a balky right hamstring, going 0-2 and not pitching more than five innings in those outings. Arrieta has struggled against the Nationals in nine lifetime starts, going 1-2 with a 5.48 ERA and 1.67 WHIP. He was the loser in a 6-1 defeat in Washington on June 27. The right-hander has gone 4-2 with a 3.64 ERA in seven postseason starts over the past three years. If the series goes to a fifth and deciding game, chances are Maddon will choose between Hendricks and Lester, the latter being available because of two scheduled travel days.

The Cubs’ 3.80 bullpen ERA was the third-lowest mark in the NL and the sixth-best in the majors. Closer Wade Davis posted a 2.30 ERA and 1.14 WHIP, converting 32 of 33 save opportunities (his lone blown save came in his last save chance on Sept. 23). To reach Davis in the ninth inning, the Cubs rely on right-handers Pedro Strop (2.83 ERA, 65 strikeouts in 60 1/3 innings) and Carl Edwards Jr. (2.98 ERA, 94 strikeouts in 66 1/3 innings) and lefties Brian Duensing (2.74 ERA) and Justin Wilson, a trade deadline acquisition from the Tigers who struggled to a 5.09 ERA and 2.09 WHIP. Southpaw Mike Montgomery is the long man; he made 14 starts and worked to a 3.38 ERA in 44 outings.

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