The day has finally arrived. After a four-day, NFL-like wait between games, the Nationals and Cubs will take the field at Nationals Park for Game 1 of the National League Division Series Friday night.
Both clubs are saturated with star power in every department, creating high-profile matchups at every turn. We highlight three here to keep an eye on for Game 1 and beyond.
Trea Turner vs. the Cubs’ battery
The last time the Cubs had to deal with Trea Turner, the only way they could stop him was by plunking him with a fastball. The Nationals shortstop was 6 for 14 with four walks and seven steals in four games against the Cubs in late June before Pedro Strop unleashed a pitch that broke Turner’s right wrist in the ninth inning of the series finale. He would miss the next 51 games.
Turner stole four bases in the second game of the series alone, which prompted Cubs catcher Miguel Montero to criticize pitcher Jake Arrieta’s inability to hold runners. Arrieta agreed with his former teammate’s assessment, but Montero was designated for assignment the next day anyway.
Turner returned from the disabled list on Aug. 29 to bat .297 with an .897 OPS, four home runs, 11 doubles, two triples and 11 steals in 30 games.
“You can’t be worried about that now or still thinking about that too much,” Turner said. “I would love to play well just to help my team win, move on. 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.”
The Cubs figure to have an easier time neutralizing base stealers with Willson Contreras behind the plate, but Arrieta, who is expected to start Game 4 if necessary, and Jon Lester, the Cubs’ Game 2 starter, have a history of not making it easy for catchers.
Kyle Hendricks vs. Nationals batters
Kyle Hendricks will start Game 1 for the Cubs over Jon Lester and Jose Quintana after compiling a 3.03 ERA and 3.88 FIP across 139 2/3 innings in 24 starts. While pitchers are throwing harder and accumulating more strikeouts than ever, Hendricks is a throwback. The right-hander’s fastball averaged 86.3 mph during the regular season, according to FanGraphs. He works the corners. He doesn’t miss bats, as his strikeout rate of 7.9 per nine innings indicates. He depends on generating weak contact.
Last season, when he finished third in the NL Cy Young voting, Hendricks yielded a hard-hit percentage of 25.8, the fifth-lowest mark in baseball. This year, the number climbed to 30.4 percent, which was still one of the better figures in the league.
“He’s one of those guys that you really have to stay in your zone and hunt a pitch in your zone,” Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy said. “Because if you don’t he does a such a good job of throwing marginal balls or marginal strikes that look good. And if you swing at those, he’s going to be out. You see the success he had last year and the success he’s had this year as well. They’re going with him in Game 1 on a ballclub that has a ton of firepower in the starting pitching rotation. So again hunt a pitch in your zone and try to get a good swing off.”
Only four projected Nationals starters have had more than five plate appearances against Hendricks in their careers. Murphy (three home runs) and Bryce Harper (.938 OPS) have enjoyed the most success. Below is how the Nationals’ roster has fared against Hendricks.
Bryce Harper vs. Cubs pitchers
Last May, Bryce Harper compiled 13 walks in a four-game series against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. In the series finale, he saw 27 pitches, walked six times, and was hit by a pitch in seven plate appearances. The radical strategy worked because Ryan Zimmerman, batting behind Harper, floundered.
This season, Chicago took a different approach, pitching to him with a resurgent Zimmerman batting cleanup behind him. There’s a strong chance Harper will bat second — not third — and in front of Anthony Rendon — not Zimmerman — in the NLDS. And the Cubs figure to pitch to the slugger, who returned to play in five of Washington’s six final regular season games after a 42-game absence due to left knee and calf injuries.
Harper went 3 for 18 with seven strikeouts, two walks, and zero extra-base hits in the five games. The numbers appear discouraging, but Harper looked his best in the season finale, going 2 for 4 and a walk. The two hits were line-drive singles to left field and right field. He hit another ball hard up the middle that was gobbled up by an infield shift.
The right fielder went 10 for 30 with three walks, 10 strikeouts and a home run in seven games against the Cubs this season. He’s compiled a .289 batting average and .898 OPS against pitchers on the Cubs over his career. Below is a look at his numbers against each Cubs hurler.
Read more on the Nationals: