Nobody on the Nationals wants to stir the pot. Nobody wants to say anything that might give the Cubs any extra ammunition. The Cubs, for their part, have already said plenty.
When Cubs board member Todd Ricketts visited Donald Trump in the White House to celebrate the team’s 2016 World Series title, he told the president, “We’re going to run into [the Nationals] in the playoffs, and you’re going to see them crumble.” Multiple people with the Nationals have said that sentence will be prevalent in their clubhouse during the postseason — bulletin board material, as they say.
“We respect the Cubs, but we do not fear them,” said Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo Wednesday. That is probably as far as anyone on the Nationals will go.
Reticence is a hallmark of these Nationals, for better or worse. They will not say much to upset anybody. They will not say much to indicate any kind of underlying angst at all. But the fact of the matter is that the Nationals, like so many other teams, would like nothing better than to dethrone the Cubs.
One recent day, the Cubs’ game was on televisions in the clubhouse. When players saw John Lackey allow a hit or two, then engage in a heated confrontation with the home plate umpire, Nationals players hooted and hollered. When the Cardinals scored a run, the echoes rained down from all corners of the clubhouse. All the attention showered on the Cubs last season stuck with these Nationals, though none of them will say so. But this is no ordinary playoff series to them.
Dusty Baker, for example, has said many times that his tenure in Chicago did not end well. When asked about what he remembers most about his four seasons with the Cubs, Baker’s memories are not all positive.
“What comes to my mind is how well we started off and how thing certainly could have been different. One pitch, one out, one hit, one something,” Baker said. “And then how it ended on not very good terms. Also, what my time in Chicago did for me and my family on the positive side, on the financial side, on the baseball side, and on the learning side. Because you learn about people, you learn how to handle good times and bad times. I actually gained more strength during bad times than I did in the good times. Not a whole bunch fazes me after I left Chicago. It was a little rough.”
Baker, of course, came within six outs of bringing the Cubs to the World Series in 2003, when the Steve Bartman play occurred and the whole thing unraveled. He also was blamed for the injuries that derailed Kerry Wood’s and Mark Prior’s careers there, charged with overworking his aces and therefore limiting the Cubs’ window.
So the Nationals’ manager has plenty of incentive to beat the Cubs, as does Rizzo, who grew up not far from Wrigley Field and is one of many general managers who operate in Theo Epstein’s shadow. Certainly no one can argue that Rizzo has achieved as much as curse-breaker Epstein, but a win might warrant Rizzo similar consideration for a place among MLB’s general manager elite. Rizzo has not said as much, of course. No one on the Nationals has incentive to stir the pot.
Trea Turner, for one, was diplomatic Wednesday when asked about the Cubs. Turner ran all over the Cubs and their pitching staff at Nationals Park in June, stealing seven bases in four games before being hit on the wrist with a pitch that left him sidelined for two months.
“You can’t be worried about that now or still thinking about that too much. I would love to play well just to help my team win, move on,” Turner said. “That’s what it comes down to is doing whatever you have to do to win. That’s what I’m interested in, and that’s what we’re interested in. Hopefully we can get this rolling.”
Daniel Murphy went 9 for 17 (.529) with four home runs, a double, six runs batted in and six runs scored for the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series against the Cubs in 2015. He has established himself as both a Cubs-slayer and a playoff hero, but was unwilling to say anything more about the Cubs — other than that he would probably study their pitching staff’s most recent outings in preparation. Murphy hit .360 with a 1.229 OPS against the Cubs this season.
“I personally, me, I have like a recency bias so I’ll look at some of their last outings and how they’ve thrown and how they’ve attacked other left-handed hitters. Personally, what they’ve done with nobody on base or runners on in high leverage situations. So I’ll go through that and try to refresh my memory,” Murphy said. “There’s quite a few guys over there that, again, we all have a great deal of familiarity with, I feel like. The starting pitchers and some of the guys in the bullpen. We didn’t play them that long ago in Chicago, I feel like.”
If anyone wants the Nationals to stoke a rivalry, they won’t. But their motivation to beat the Cubs, unspoken though it is, glimmers beneath the surface of everything they say. Perhaps any team they faced in the National League Division Series would provide as much motivation. The Cubs will certainly provide no shortage of it.
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