CHICAGO - The Nationals still have 56 games to play, the Cubs 55. More than one-third of the season remains. But we’d be lying to ourselves if we didn’t point out that this weekend’s series at Wrigley Field is very likely going to be a preview of the National League Division Series.
The Nats have been running away with the NL East for months, leading the division by an average of 10 games since Memorial Day. The Cubs may only lead the Brewers by 1 1/2 games in the NL Central at the moment, but the two teams have been trending in complete opposite directions since the All-Star break, and FanGraphs.com pegs Chicago’s chances of winning the division at 90 percent.
And with the Dodgers currently on pace to win 113 games ... well, it’s probably safe to say they’ve locked up home-field advantage and a first-round matchup with the NL’s wild card winner.
So the odds of a Nats-Cubs NLDS are quite high, adding some extra juice to this weekend’s series. Not that it wouldn’t have had plenty of juice regardless.
This is a marquee matchup, for any number of reasons. Bryce Harper vs. Kris Bryant, the two Las Vegas kids who have won the league’s last two MVP awards. Joe Maddon vs. Ryan Zimmerman, the psychological battle that was waged last season when Maddon kept walking Harper and forcing Zimmerman to beat him. Cubs fans vs. Dusty Baker, who despite leading this formerly cursed franchise as close to the World Series as any manager had in decades before Maddon got it over the hump last year continues to get booed like few others who pass through the North Side.
Baker is beloved every time he returns to one of the towns in which he used to play or manage. Except when he comes to Chicago.
The Nationals come into this series limping a bit, having lost two in a row in Miami and having seen its list of injured players grow. Reliever Enny Romero is likely headed to the disabled list with a forearm strain suffered while facing Giancarlo Stanton on Wednesday night. Max Scherzer’s availability to make his scheduled start Sunday is up in the air until the right-hander gives his neck a chance to heal following a planned trip to the chiropractor.
Gio Gonzalez, meanwhile, is tentatively scheduled to start Saturday, but the Nationals need to have a backup plan ready in case the left-hander’s wife goes into labor and he needs to return to Washington. Edwin Jackson figures to be the fallback option.