By Bruce Levine–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Without a Cy Young candidate pitching in the first two games of a divisional series, most clubs would be questioning their chances of advancing in a best-of-five format.
In the case of the Nationals, they’re only slightly impacted. Although right-hander Max Scherzer is on a track to not pitch until Game 3 because of a tender hamstring, Washington will be plenty content with right-hander Stephen Strasburg, another Cy Young candidate, stepping on the mound against the Cubs in Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Friday evening in Washington D.C. With a strong conviction in the depth of their pitching staff, the Nationals are as confident as ever.
“I’m excited for the opportunity to pitch in the playoffs again,” Strasburg said Thursday. “It’s one thing you just really can’t take for granted. You have to make the most out of every opportunity you get.”
Strasburg turned in a stellar season, going 15-4 with a 2.52 ERA and 1.02 WHIP. He has plenty of respect for the defending champion Cubs — but also the talent to stifle them. In his lone start against the Cubs this season, Strasburg earned the win, going seven innings and allowing three runs, two earned, on four hits and one walk while striking out 13.
“They have a lot of quality guys,” Strasburg said. “You really don’t know who will be in the lineup yet. We faced them this year, and I have faced them in the past and stuff. I think for me the idea is to focus on what you can control. That is execution and trusting the guy next to you. I think that’s a huge thing for us. Hopefully, the fans are going to be there for us.”
The Cubs offense will be a big challenge for Strasburg. Chicago scored 423 runs in its final 74 games of the the season, an average of 5.72 that led all of baseball.
Of course, Strasburg will be a big challenge for the Cubs too. He was brilliant after the All-Star break, going 6-1 with a 0.86 ERA and 76 strikeouts in 62 2/3 innings.
“He is good,” Cubs third baseman and reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant said. “He is really good. Their whole pitching staff is really good. He has had an excellent second half. I am sure Scherzer would have been there if he was all right. That is a pretty good No. 2 pitcher to have. We have our work cut out. We know anything can happen in the playoffs. Hopefully, we go out and have good at-bats and end up being happy.”
Strasburg is pitching to contact more this season, an American League scout assigned to do advance work on the Nationals said, by making a concerted effort to establish his breaking ball and changeup. It’s led to more fooled hitters, and Strasburg’s fastball is elite as well.
Nationals catcher Matt Wieters agreed with that assessment.
“He has had confidence in those pitches,” Wieters said. “He has been able to throw his breaking stuff behind and ahead in the count. He has four great pitches. Any time you can keep hitters guessing, the best way to do that is to use them all. He has been able to do that well in the second half and really very well all year.”
The Cubs hitter with the most at-bats against Strasburg is outfielder Jason Heyward, who used to play in the same division as Strasburg and the Nationals when he was with the Braves. Heyward is hitting .405 (15-of-37) with with one homer and four RBIs against him. The Cubs player with the next-most at-bats is first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who’s 2-of-13 against Strasburg.
“That doesn’t mean anything necessarily,” Heyward said of his personal success against Strasburg. “This is the postseason. All that regular-season success is good but doesn’t mean those results will continue. I faced him enough, but I am in a new division now.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.