By Bruce Levine–
CHICAGO (CBS) — The opposition’s pitching is among the best in baseball. Its offense scored the fifth-most runs in baseball.
The Cubs know the magnitude of the challenge that awaits them in the form of the 97-win Washington Nationals. The teams start their best-of-five National League Division Series on Friday in Washington D.C. When they do, the Cubs will have to find a way to deal with the vaunted Nationals rotation of Max Scherzer (16-6, 2.51 ERA), Stephen Strasburg (15-4, 2.52) and Gio Gonzalez (15-9, 2.96). All three ranked in the top five in the NL in ERA.
“Look, you are facing great pitchers in the playoffs,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “It never changes. To be the best, you have to beat the best. You must prove that for 11 wins in the playoffs. You can’t be happy with just a few wins.”
As of late Tuesday afternoon, Washington hadn’t announced its rotation. But with Scherzer dealing with a tweaked hamstring, Strasburg was expected to start Game 1. And Scherzer was eyeing a return for Game 3 on Monday at Wrigley Field, FanRag Sports, as was Cubs’ right-hander Jake Arrieta (hamstring).
Regardless of which Nationals pitcher is on the mound, the Cubs will face a difficult task.
“They are a deep lineup and have really good pitching,” Rizzo said. “They have a revamped bullpen that I think deserves a lot of credit for the team’s success. They are a deep team, and so are we. It will be a fun series.
“We know that when Scherzer does pitch, he will bring nothing but his best. He is a gamer and will battle you every pitch. We will be ready for what he brings, which is a lot.”
The Nationals took the season series 4-3, including a 2-2 split in D.C. With a championship run in 2016 and second-half turnaround in mind, Rizzo still believes the Cubs are the best team in the playoffs.
“In my opinion, we are the favorites to win it all again,” Rizzo said. “In Bryce Harper’s opinion, Washington is the favorite. Cody Bellinger is probably saying the same about the Dodgers. We are as battle-tested as you can get going back to the playoffs. We have been there and done it. It will be all about that bounce going your way or you are going to get the big hit. That or if you make that big pitch in the big moment.”
To most outsiders, the Cubs will be slight underdogs — not that the players are really concerned about that.
“Teams will admit years later that they had a World Series hangover,” Rizzo said. “We just have really come together in the second half and now facing the Nationals, we know what is at stake again.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.