Chicago Cubs (92-70) vs. Washington Nationals (97-65)
This is a series of "what ifs?" for both teams. What if Cubs left-hander Jon Lester isn't the clutch Jon Lester? What if Nationals ace Max Scherzer is really hampered and delayed by his mild hamstring strain? What if Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta isn't the good Jake Arrieta? And maybe the most important "if" of all: What if Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper can't shake off the rust from missing 42 games with a bad knee bruise?
Well, even with all those "what ifs?," this is still going to be an entertaining and fun National League Division Series. Not much can be gleaned from the seven times the two clubs played during the regular season -- the Nationals won the season series, 4-3.
A look at both individual and collective batting and pitching stats sheds little light. As a team, the Cubs batted .255, had a .338 OBP and scored 822 runs. Meanwhile, the Nationals hit .266 with a .332 OBP and 819 runs.
On the pitching side, the Cubs recorded a 3.95 ERA and 1.28 WHIP, while the Nationals had a 3.88 ERA and 1.24 WHIP.
Individually, the Cubs had just one player with a monster season. First baseman Anthony Rizzo knocked in 109 RBIs, while the Nationals had two 100-plus RBI guys in first baseman Ryan Zimmerman (108) and third baseman Anthony Rendon (100). The Nationals surely would have had a third player -- Harper -- surpass 100 RBIs if not for all the missed time in August and September. He finished at 87. Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy had 93 RBIs.
But as good as the Nationals' big four are, there is a discernible drop off with the rest of the lineup, especially in the OBP category, with catcher and former Oriole Matt Wieters at .288, outfielder Michael A. Taylor at .320, outfielder Jayson Werth at .322 and shortstop Trea Turner at .338.
What does that mean? It means that if the Cubs' staff can keep those four players off the bases, they have a recipe to win.
The Nationals biggest and most important weapons are starters Stephen Strasburg and Scherzer. If they are both on, the Nationals can make short work of the reigning World Champions.
Former New York Mets general manager Steve Phillips talked about how Cubs manager Joe Maddon desperately needs a pitching bridge from the fourth and fifth innings until the seventh. It would not shock me to see Maddon tab aging right-hander John Lackey as the possible key man in his staff.
Late in games, there is no comparison. The Cubs' Wade Davis is the far superior closer to the Nationals' Sean Doolittle. But I see the Cubs with a few too many "what ifs?" not working in their favor.
Pick: Nationals in five games
Arizona Diamondbacks (93-69) vs. Los Angeles Dodgers (104-58)
In his first season, Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo presided over a consistently good team. There were nowhere near the high highs and the low lows that Dave Roberts contended with as skipper in Los Angeles. What started out as a surprising three-team race in the NL West for the first month and a half saw the Dodgers actually trailing early to two upstart teams: the Diamondbacks and the Colorado Rockies.
In time, the Rockies wilted, but the Diamondback remained steady. Their acquisition of right fielder and slugger J.D. Martinez July 18 gave them the added firepower that allowed them to go 39-30 through the end of the regular season. Nobody seriously challenged them for the first wild-card spot and home advantage in that game.
However, Lovullo was rightly worried about the Rockies' firepower and lined up his No. 2 starter, Robbie Ray, to throw two-plus innings and 34 pitches during the Diamondbacks' wild-card win. Lovullo had planned ahead for such a scenario by having Taijuan Walker tabbed to go in Game 1 of the NLDS. Wild-card starter Zack Greinke threw just a bit more than 50 pitches, and my guess is he'll be tabbed to start Game 2 if the Diamondbacks lose to Clayton Kershaw in Game 1. That would leave Ray for Game 3 in Arizona
As for the Dodgers, I know they lost six games in a row to this feisty Diamondbacks club in August and September, but let's not forget that the Dodgers were 7-3 against Arizona prior to that. In those six games in August and September, the Dodgers were coasting after an 82-25 stretch from April 24-Aug. 25.
Pick: Dodgers in four games
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