By Bruce Levine–
CHICAGO (CBS) — This weekend at Wrigley Field could bring an early August preview of a National League Divisional Series matchup.
The NL Central-leading Cubs will host the NL East-leading Nationals in a three-game set. So what’s at stake? For the Cubs, a lot, as they have a 1.5-game lead on the Brewers in the division after a 14-3 run to open the second half before they lost their past two games, including a 10-8 setback to the Diamondbacks at Wrigley Field on Thursday. At 63-43, the Nationals are cruising in the NL East, leading the Marlins by a whopping 12 games.
If the Cubs win the NL Central, they’ll almost certainly play the Nationals, as the Dodgers are running away from everyone with an impressive 75-32 record. So Los Angeles will be in line to face the wild-card winner. If the playoffs started today, the Cubs and Nationals would play a best-of-five set beginnings in Washington.
For now, the Cubs are trying to win every series and hold off the Brewers, whose solid play has been one of the big surprises in baseball this season. A 10-game road trip from Sept. 19-28 that finds Chicago playing two at Tampa Bay, four in Milwaukee and four in St. Louis could go a long way to determining the NL Central winner.
The Cubs are 15-24 against teams with winning records this season, not playing consistent ball in those games. On Friday, Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks will face Nationals right-hander Tanner Roark. The Cubs will then follow with John Lackey and Jon Lester. With an injury-plagued rotation, the Nationals haven’t announced their plans for Saturday and Sunday.
The Cubs and Nationals split four games in Washington in late June.
“Last time we played them, we were a little short,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “My curiosity then was watching how they played because their record was so good. However, right now, they are a little banged up. We are not sure who is pitching for them yet. I know what they look like on the field. They are really formidable, with a really good offense. The curiosity factor told me we can absolutely play with them. It is just a matter of beating their pitcher that day. Their pitching is really good.
“It will be interesting to see how we play them with a full complement of players. We have been playing a lot better. The pitching has been a lot better. Moving forward, it is getting interesting.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.