They took over first place in the National League East Division for good on April 18. They led by at least five games every day since May 3, by at least 10 games every day since July 17, by at least 15 games every day since Aug. 30. And they clinched the division title on Sept. 10, a full 26 days before they’ll take the field tonight for their postseason opener.
The Nationals, through no fault of their own, have not had to play a truly meaningful game in quite some time, and barely had to play any of them during their 97-65 march to the playoffs.
The Cubs? That’s an entirely different story. Despite preseason expectations of wire-to-wire dominance, they found themselves trailing the Brewers by 5 1/2 games in the NL Central on July 15. They finally caught Milwaukee on Aug. 12 but remained only two games up on Sept. 12. Not until they took three-of-four during a pressure-packed Sept. 21-24 series at Miller Park could they comfortably know they were going to win the division and return to the postseason one year after winning it all.
Chicago played meaningful games all summer and into the fall, facing must-win situations regularly during a season that was an unexpected grind but may be to this club’s benefit now.
Welcome, then, to a most compelling National League Division Series between two elite ballclubs that took very different paths to get here.
The question now is whether it makes a difference which path each team took. Are the Nationals less-prepared for the pressure of October baseball because they weren’t tested for the last six months? Was there value for the Cubs in a summer full of meaningful games that makes this a more battle-tested bunch entering Game 1 this evening on South Capitol Street?
“I think there’s pros and cons to both,” Nationals shortstop Trea Turner said. “I think we got a chance to rest a little bit, and they had to, I guess, go full throttle through the majority of the year. But it also hurts us a little bit. We probably took our foot off the gas for a little and relaxed, which is not always a good thing.”
The Nats have some experience with this. In each of their four postseason runs over the last six years, they’ve held comfortable leads in September, never truly pushed down to the final week of play. That hasn’t translated into October success. Then again, there’s an acknowledgement that the two don’t really correlate.
“I don’t know if it’s advantage,” second baseman Daniel Murphy said. “I know (manager) Dusty (Baker) did a great job of resting guys. If I’m not mistaken, though, September success or failure doesn’t have a ton of impact on October success or failure.”
Murphy is not mistaken. Recent research, most notably by Sports Illustrated’s Jay Jaffe, showed that during baseball’s Wild Card “era” - 1995 to present - a team’s September record had no correlation to its October record. Some teams that played well down the stretch went on to the World Series, some were eliminated in the first round. Some teams that struggled through the finish line got their act together just in time to win a championship, some continued to play poorly in the Division Series.
Here’s what is irrefutable, though: The Cubs have experienced it all in the last two seasons. They ran away with the NL Central crown in 2016, entered the postseason with the weight of 107 years of Cubs failed October history on their shoulders and proceeded to rally from a 3-1 deficit to win a classic World Series over the Indians.
This year, they had to work much harder just to get to this point. But now they know they can handle that kind of pressure as well.
“We clinched so early (in 2016), down the stretch we were just kind of playing to get ready for October, in a way,” said Kyle Hendricks, who starts Game 1 tonight against Stephen Strasburg. “This year, a lot different, obviously. It was a grind for us from the start of the year, ups and downs through the whole year. But down the stretch in September, we played a lot of meaningful games. We’re going to try to use that to our advantage. Hopefully we’re ready.”
There’s no debating the difference in pressure facing the opponents in this series. The Nationals, who have lost all three playoff series they’ve participated in and play in a town where none of the four major pro franchises have even reached its league semifinal in 19 years, have tons of pressure on them.
The Cubs, meanwhile, are playing with house money this fall. And they’re showing it, laughing and yukking it up throughout their late-afternoon workout at Nationals Park on Thursday like it was March 5, not Oct. 5.
“I don’t care what anyone says, there was pressure last year,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “We didn’t really let it affect us. But when you look back on it, the pressure was just through the roof, through the charts. To break a curse, the way we did it, the series we did it through, the teams we beat ... I don’t see it being any easier this time around, but I think we’re built for it, and I think we’re ready for it.”
The Nationals have plenty of postseason experience, even if it’s not successful postseason experience. And they have done everything they can to prepare themselves for they believe is the best opportunity they’ve had yet to play deep into October.
That includes approaching games down the stretch with the same intensity they would have had they been in the thick of a pennant race.
“It might not seem like it in the standings, but that’s the way we approach every game,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “You try to win it. Nobody in this room or in this league doesn’t want to come through in big situations at the end of the game. If you look at the standings, it kind of looks like that. But we put pressure on each other every night to do what you’re supposed to do to win games. And I think we did a pretty good job of that this year.”
We’ll start to find out tonight whether it makes a difference when it really counts.