<
>

Can anyone stop the Dodgers? What Nats-Cubs told us about the NL pennant race

This past weekend's Chicago Cubs-Washington Nationals series might not have been the National League Division Series preview that everyone wants to believe it was.

After all, the pesky Milwaukee Brewers are just a half-game behind the Cubs and could end up winning the NL Central. And not to mention those pesky Miami Marlins are only 13 games back from the Nationals and could end up winning the NL East (just kidding).

Even if the Cubs and Nationals do the expected and end up taking their respective divisions, the Los Angeles Dodgers might fall of a cliff and play .300 baseball the rest of the way, in which case Washington would be the top seed and we’d have a Chicago-L.A. matchup in the NLDS (kidding again). Or maybe even Chicago-Colorado or a Chicago-Arizona matchup (still kidding).

OK, so odds are Cubs-Nats was indeed a sneak peek of the fall. If you believe FanGraphs, which currently gives Chicago an 86 percent chance of winning the Central and Washington a 99.9 percent chance of winning the East, then the probability of a Cubs-Nationals division series is ... 86 percent.

Let’s run with that and take a gander at what the past three days in Wrigleyville told us about the NL pennant race. Here are five key takeaways:

1. August MLB can look a whole lot like August NFL

Preseason football means next to nothing because the guys who are actually on the gridiron in August are, for the most part, not the same guys who are on the gridiron come September. This weekend in Chicago was kind of the same thing. None of Washington’s top three starters pitched because Stephen Strasburg is on the disabled list, Max Scherzer was nursing a pain in his neck and Gio Gonzalez was on emergency daddy duty thanks to the impending birth of his second child.

Only one of Chicago’s top three starters took the hill because, well, there are five guys in a standard big league rotation and sometimes dems da breaks. So the Nationals bypassed Jake Arrieta and Jose Quintana. In other words, forget about a grain of salt: Given the matchups at Wrigley Field, the fact that Washington took two of three to win both the weekend series and the season series (4-3) has to be taken with an entire shaker full of NaCl.

2. Washington’s offense is built for October

Regardless of when Strasburg returns and if he can stay healthy down the stretch, the Nats are going to be a tough out in the playoffs -- a tough 27 outs, really -- because their lineup is deeper than Barry White’s voice. Forget about the 5.5 runs per game that they’re scoring this year (best in the NL). Forget about the numbers being posted by the supersized Murderers' Row that is Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon. All you need to do is look at what happened late in Washington’s 9-4 comeback victory on Sunday.

Down 4-3 in the top of the eighth, Harper led off with an infield single against reliever Carl Edwards Jr. Next up was Zimmerman, who crushed a double to deep center. With runners on second and third and nobody out, Cubs skipper Joe Maddon chose to have the right-handed Edwards intentionally walk lefty Murphy, an entirely defensible choice ... until you consider that the guy who hits after Murphy (Rendon) leads Washington in WAR. OK, so maybe you don’t have to be an MVP candidate to lean into a breaking ball -- which Rendon did on the first offering he saw from Edwards to make it a tie game -- but the simple fact that Edwards went off-speed with the sacks juiced tells you all you need to know about how dangerous Rendon is and has been all season. On the very next pitch, No. 7 hitter Matt Wieters broke it open with a homer. So, yeah, the Nats' lineup can rake. And as everyone knows, raking comes in handy in the fall.

3. Chicago’s bullpen is suddenly full of question marks

With all due respect to Brian Duensing, when he’s the most effective reliever on your team -- which Duensing was against Washington this weekend -- you’ve got problems. Wade Davis might be a perfect 23-for-23 in saves this season, but over the past eight weeks, he’s sporting a 1.80 WHIP and has walked 12 batters in his last 16⅔ innings. Two of those free passes came on Saturday, when Davis labored through a 30-pitch ninth inning and fell behind four of the five hitters he faced. Lefty Justin Wilson, who was one of the hottest relief names on the trade market, also struggled on Saturday and has now allowed seven baserunners in three innings since coming over from Detroit. Then there’s Edwards, who got lit up on Sunday and has now yielded a combined 10 earned runs in his past 6 1/3 innings.

As critical as relievers have become in the postseason, if Maddon can’t get the pen’s problems sorted out, his squad could be in for a short October. That is, if they even manage to outlast Milwaukee (and St. Louis and Pittsburgh) in August and September.

4. Washington’s bullpen is suddenly full of answers

No, really. Compared to the big names that changed bullpen addresses last year -- Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and Mark Melancon -- the guys whom Washington general manager Mike Rizzo added at this year’s deadline (Ryan Madson, Sean Doolittle, Brandon Kintzler) have all the sizzle of a chilled bowl of gazpacho.

Fortunately for the Nats, sizzle is not a quantifiable statistic. Walks and hits, however, are. And the three-headed monster known as Madlitzler combined to give up just three hits and a walk in 5 2/3 scoreless frames against the Cubs. That works out to a tidy 0.71 WHIP. Madson has been especially filthy; in seven appearances since joining Washington, the 36-year-old righty has tossed seven shutout innings, allowing just four hits and a walk with 11 punchouts. The Nats' pen, whose 5.20 ERA was the worst in baseball during the first half of the season, has a 4.66 ERA since the break. And a 4.26 since Madson and Doolittle joined the team. And a 3.65 since Kintzler came along.

Where I come from, that’s called a trend -- one that, if it continues, could help the Nats win their first playoff series ever.

5. There’s a good chance none of this matters

Regardless of who wins the division series matchup between the NL’s second and third seeds, there’s a better-than-sporting chance that the Dodgers will be waiting for them. Why? Because L.A.'s winning percentage over the past two months (.863) is nearly 200 points higher than the Nationals' winning percentage over the past three days (.667). That’s right. With another win on Sunday, the Dodgers are now 44-7 in their past 51 contests. Forty-four and seven.

The timing of the Dodgers' streak is not a coincidence, either: The first of those 51 games came on June 6, when L.A. beat the Nationals in the finale of a three-game set in Tinseltown. The following day, Justin Turner -- who’s, um, really good at baseball -- returned after missing three weeks with a hammy strain. It has been ice cream and puppy dogs ever since. And that’s despite missing ace Clayton Kershaw for the past two weeks!

Of course, just because Dave Roberts’ club is on pace for an absurd 115 regular-season wins doesn’t guarantee anything in the postseason. Just ask the 2001 Mariners, who set an MLB record by going 116-46, then lost in the ALCS. Then there’s this: Of the 21 teams that have posted 100-win seasons since the beginning of the wild-card era, only seven of them have reached the World Series. So maybe there’s hope yet for the Nationals. Or the Cubs. Or the Brewers. Or the Marlins.