By Cliff Corcoran
For all of the off-field drama that surrounded the Nationals' starting pitching decision heading into Game 4 of their Division Series against the Cubs, the end result wasn't a huge surprise. Given an extra day of rest by Tuesday's rainout, Stephen Strasburg pitched on full rest and dominated, sending the series to a decisive fifth game in Washington, D.C., Thursday night (8 p.m. ET, TBS). Yes, Stras is good.
Yet, no sooner were we able to contemplate the Nationals facing a Division Series Game 5 for the second year in a row than they threw us yet another curve with regard to their starting pitcher. Gio Gonzalez will get the start, with Max Scherzer presumably available out of the bullpen.
Regardless of whether Gonzalez is able to give Washington length, the Nats 'pen is well-rested, thanks to the rainout on Tuesday and Strasburg's strong seven inning on Wednesday. Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle were the only Washington relievers to pitch in Game 4, throwing 27 and 12 pitches, respectively. There are plenty of arms ready to back up whomever takes the mound in Game 5 (including Scherzer and Tanner Roark), all but Madson well-rested.
The Cubs, by comparison, burned starter Jon Lester in Game 4, using him for 55 pitches in a losing effort. No other Chicago reliever threw more than 15 pitches in that game; however, the team's top two short relievers, closer Wade Davis (11 pitches) and setup man Carl Edwards Jr. (15 pitches), both pitched poorly, which could impact manager Joe Maddon's decision making in Game 5. Still, Maddon should have left-handed Game 3 starter Jose Quintana (on three days' rest after throwing 96 pitches) and repurposed right-handed starter John Lackey available as long men, if needed.
More important, the Cubs manager will have Kyle Hendricks starting on five days' rest. As good as the even-keeled Hendricks may be during the regular season, he has proven to be even better in the postseason, posting a 1.98 ERA in eight starts dating back to 2015. Given the fast-hook trend of the past couple of postseasons, Hendricks hasn't always pitched deep into games. But since allowing three runs in his first postseason start in the 2015 NLDS against the Cardinals, he has not allowed more than two runs in any of his last seven postseason outings. Meanwhile, his two best postseason starts were his 7 1/3 scoreless innings while opposing Clayton Kershaw in last year's pennant clincher against the Dodgers, sloughing off the weight of the Cubs' 71-year pennant drought, and his seven scoreless innings in Game 1 of this series.
Not that quality pitching performances have been hard to come by in this series. The average score of the first four games was 3-2 Nationals. Each team has been shut out once (the Nats by Hendricks, Edwards and Davis in Game 1, the Cubs by Strasburg, Madson and Doolittle in Game 4), and no starting pitcher for either team has allowed more than the three runs Gonzalez gave up in Game 2.
The flip side of that is that Chicago has scored just eight times in the first four games and is hitting .159/.258/.257 as a team. By OPS, catcher Willson Contreras has been their leading hitter; he has two hits, one a solo home run off Gonzalez, and four walks in 15 plate appearances. Javy Baez, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ are a combined 0-for-16 with three walks. Thanks to some offense in Games 2 and 4 (six runs and three extra-base hits, five runs and three extra-base hits, respectively), the Nationals have scored 12 runs in the series and have raised their collective batting line to .130/.241/.252. Their top hitter, by OPS, has been Anthony Rendon, who is 2-for-14 with a double, a homer, and three walks. Only Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Taylor have more hits than Rendon on the Nationals, with three each. Trea Turner, Jayson Werth, and Matt Wieters are a combined 2-for-39 with six walks.
Daniel Murphy has the most impressive track record against Hendricks, with all four of his hits against the Cubs' righty having gone for extra bases, including two home runs on Aug. 4 of this year and another during Murphy's red-hot 2015 playoff run.
But this game will likely come down to the teams' top hitters. Anthony Rizzo has driven in five of the Cubs' eight runs in this series, including the game winner in Game 3, and snapped a streak of 25 plate appearances against Gonzalez without an extra-base hit with a two-run home run against the lefty in their last confrontation in Game 2. Meanwhile, the Nationals' game-winning, five-run outburst in the eighth inning of Game 2 still comprises 42 percent of the runs Washington has scored in this series. All five of those runs scored on home runs by Bryce Harper and Zimmerman. In all, 10 of the Nats' 12 runs have scored on home runs (adding Rendon's solo shot in Game 2 and Michael Taylor's grand slam in Game 4). The other two Washington runs scored on a Zimmerman double and a Cubs fielding error.
Speaking of which, with offense so scarce, errors have played an outsized role in this series. The Cubs made four in Game 3. Among them were two by Kyle Schwarber on a single play that set up the lone Washington run in a game Chicago won 2-1 on a bloop single that may have been catchable. Meanwhile, what proved to be the winning runs of Games 1 and 4 (the two shutouts) were keyed by errors, a drop by Rendon in the former and a boot by Addison Russell in the latter.
Above and beyond all of those details, the story of Game 5 will be the Nationals, who have reached the Division Series four times in the last six years, attempting to reach the National League Championship Series for the first time. This will be the third of those four series to reach a Game 5, all of them played in Nationals Park. In 2012, the Nats were one strike away from advancing against two different Cardinals hitters only to have closer Drew Storen walk both, then give up the series-winning runs. Last year, they had a 1-0 lead on the Dodgers heading into the seventh inning of Game 5, when Scherzer, pitching on five days' rest, gave up a game-tying home run on his first pitch of the seventh, after which L.A. took a 4-1 lead on the Washington bullpen. The Nats got the tying run to third base in the bottom of the seventh, but Kenley Jansen (for 2 1/3 innings) and Kershaw (for the final two batters) sent them home once again. If they do manage to advance this year, their reward will be a chance at revenge on the Dodgers.
Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.