The Nationals have long been dreading this date - at Wrigley Field, the Nats lost four out of four to the best team in the majors, in three convincing wins for Chicago, and one heartbreaking, thirteen-inning loss for the Nationals to complete the series.
Washington will dodge a bullet during Chicago's three-day stay; Jake Arrieta will not pitch for the Cubs in Washington.
The three that will are only a slightly better fate - Kyle Hendricks, John Lackey, and Jason Hammel all dominated when the Nats faced them in Chicago, and are all impressing currently.
Hendricks, who will start for the Cubs tonight, last pitched in Philadelphia, where he went five innings and gave up two earned runs. Against the Nats in May, Hendricks stifled the Nats’ bats with a six inning performance in which he didn’t allow a run.
Lackey, who goes on Tuesday, was also impressive against the Nationals, going seven innings and allowing two runs. The righty's last start came in Philadelphia, where he went seven scoreless innings.
Hammel was the only pitcher in the last series that the Nationals came remotely close to success against; Washington scored three runs and managed to knock out the thirty-three year old in the fifth, en route to yet another loss against Chicago. Hammel last pitched against the Atlanta Braves, giving up three runs in 5.2 innings.
Chicago’s pitching, which many thought would be the one Achilles' heel on a team that otherwise looks perfect, has actually outperformed every other team’s, with an ERA of 2.62 and an FIP of 3.30 (The Nats are currently sitting at an ERA of 3.23 and an FIP of 3.42).
However, the Nats do have a relatively decent shot of hanging with the Cubs, especially tonight and on Wednesday, when Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg will pitch.
Max Scherzer, although going through an up-and-down season, is currently on the upswing, and, in his last two starts, gave up two runs in Philadelphia, and none against the Chicago White Sox.
Scherzer will look to even out his record and stats against the Cubs - on May 6th, Chicago rocked the Nats’ ace for seven runs in five innings.
Stephen Strasburg managed to avoid pitching against the Cubs while the Nats were there, but, excepting his previous start against the Phillies, has been exceptional against high-powered offenses this year.
Gio Gonzalez, on the other hand, is in quite a rut. Since May 23rd, the lefty has given up 21 runs and is 0-4.
However, Dusty Baker believed that the veteran was showing signs of getting back on track last week.
"He was throwing the ball good.," Baker said. "He was more determined. We've got to get him in the win column. He didn't really have any stressful innings other than that first inning"
The biggest reason Fangraphs gives Chicago a 99.6% chance of making the playoffs is their offense - the Cubs are a team that gives nightmares to any pitcher. Seven of their eight position players are all at the top of their game - Dexter Fowler is posting numbers that rival those of Daniel Murphy's, while Ben Zobrist is proving to be a worthwhile acquisition to add on to the three-four punch of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, or as Cubs fans affectionately refer to them, "Bryzzo".
The Nationals weren’t completely shut down on offense by the Cubs, but they struggled. However, the Nationals are now a different team offensively - since June 1st, Anthony Rendon and Danny Espinosa have stepped up, with Rendon batting .273 and Espinosa hitting at a clip of .324. Meanwhile, Wilson Ramos has continued his incredible run, batting .367 with ten RBI in June.
Jayson Werth is also finally back to his old self, and is pulling his average higher every day, now at a respectable .245.
It’s all paying off suddenly for the Nationals, who have found themselves on the right side of quite a few "laughers" lately, which Dusty Baker has thoroughly enjoyed.
"It’s real good for the lineup to roll around, for guys to get five at bats versus four a lot of times - it’s really good for guys to get multiple hits in these games," the Nats’ manager said.
These are two teams that most baseball analysts predict will see each other again after the two meet for the last time in the regular season on Wednesday - but the stakes will be much higher. The Nats have a lot to prove this week - but the Cubs have to prove that they're here to stay for the rest of the season.
"We still have, what 100 games — the whole season left. We’ll find out whether that’s who [the Cubs] really are," Werth said, as quoted by Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post.
"We’ll worry about ourselves. We’ve got a good team. We’re just starting to play our best, hit our best. We’re not relying on one guy like we were at times."
Later, Werth aptly put how exciting the series could be in to just a few words.
"The Cubs are coming in. They’re playing good. We’re playing good."
What to watch for at Nationals Park
Murphy reverting to average - kind of
Daniel Murphy is finally coming back to earth - to some extent. The second baseman is down to the meager clip of .369. Against Chicago in May, Murphy put up six hits.
Will Bryce Harper see a pitch to hit?
During the final game of the series in May, a thirteen-inning thriller, Harper walked six times, and thirteen times overall in the four games. Will he get a pitch to hit at home?
Anthony Rizzo loves Nationals Park
Rizzo has a higher career average in only one other ballpark, Yankee Stadium. At Nats Park, Rizzo has a career .386 clip with four home runs.
Check out the Cubs series preview from the SB Nation's Cubs site Bleed Cubbie Blue: