- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2017

Bryce Harper picked through the shelves of his locker Thursday afternoon, pulling his gloves off the top shelf where they usually sit meticulously aligned throughout the season. Harper was in flip-flops and a sweatshirt because he was taking Thursday night’s game off following his two-game, late-season return from the disabled list. Nothing was wrong. He was just taking a break.

In St. Louis, the Central Division-winning Chicago Cubs rolled a day-after-the-clinch lineup onto the field. Right fielder Ian Happ was hitting third and catcher Alex Avila was hitting cleanup. Neither had been in those spots more than 20 times this season.

So, for a day, the two National League Division Series participants that are known, relaxed their regulars. They are a week away from Game 1 of the NLDS in Nationals Park on Friday, Oct. 6. The Cubs shed more than a century of baggage last season when they won the World Series. The Nationals have more recent pains to grapple with when the postseason starts. The first-round failures in three of the last five years trail the core group in the District. Of the Nationals‘ likely starting nine in Game 1, only catcher Matt Wieters has no responsibility for flops in postseasons past.

The Nationals have one clear distinction entering the series: They know who will populate their first-round rotation. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark — presumably in that order — are the clear choices in Washington. In Chicago, the Tribune ran dueling stories Thursday that argued one pair of starters for Games 1 and 2 versus another pair. And, of the four pitchers discussed, none were named John Lackey, who may not be part of the Cubs rotation or roster. The Nationals lose a lot of information if he is removed. Their veterans — from Jayson Werth to Adam Lind and Howie Kendrick — have long, successful histories against Lackey.

Nationals manager Dusty Baker is fighting to keep his brain, and those belonging to his players, in the now. Since the Nationals clinched the National League East championship for the fourth time in six seasons on Sept. 10, Baker had projected his end-of-season plan to include an attempt at a surge in the final week. Thursday’s lineup, with Harper out, Wilmer Difo leading off, and Edwin Jackson pitching, was a brief dialing back of that pursuit. But, Baker said the regulars are expected to play through the weekend. That gives Harper another three games for fine-tuning. It can also provide a chance for the slumping Werth to hunt improvement before the postseason begins.

“These guys know what they have to do,” Baker said. “I don’t think they need any speeches or any things. I gave all those in spring training, and they’ve adhered to everything I asked for. No complaining, give me some hustle. Which they’ve given me a tremendous amount of hustle. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them. I would like to think I’ve contributed some to them, but it’s mostly them. Coaches coach, players play. These guys know.

“It’s a pretty cool group of guys. Pretty calm, hip group of guys. But also have some fierce competitors in there. It’s going to be nice.”

One of the crucial decisions for Baker will be when to play Werth, Kendrick and Lind. Werth has been a mess at the plate for more than a month, but holds a .326 career average against pitchers on the Cubs‘ staff he has faced. Much of that work came against Lackey. Werth is 7-for-18 career against the 38-year-old right-hander. Lind has hit .400 against Lackey in 45 career at-bats since the two saw each other often in the American League. That information may be moot since Lackey is not a lock for the Cubs‘ rotation. One other note: Kendrick is 6-for-16 against Chicago closer Wade Davis.

Also lurking is Baker’s past in Chicago. His time in charge of the Cubs was his shortest stint as a manager over the course of three stops — San Francisco, Chicago and Cincinnati — before being hired by Washington in 2016. Despite the brevity, beyond his World Series appearance with the Giants, those years on the North Side may be what he is most known for. Injuries to starting pitchers Mark Prior and Kerry Wood entrenched a narrative about Baker’s use of pitchers. The eternally infamous Steve Bartman incident also happened then. Baker trying to beat the Cubs to finally pull the Nationals past the first round, and making the series win a possible step to that elusive World Series championship he is after as a manager, will be one of the healthier storylines next week.

The numbers of 2017 show the series as almost a wash. Washington was 4-3 against the Cubs this season, though it outscored them 39-28. Chicago is third in the National League in OPS against left-handers and right-handers, which makes Baker’s selections for the postseason bullpen more predicated on who he trusts than any clear splits. The Cubs came into Thursday second in runs scored in the NL, the Nationals third. Washington is third in ERA, the Cubs sixth.

“They’ve been there,” Harper said. “They’re a great team. Looking forward to it.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide