Biggest questions Nats must answer to advance to NLCS

The National League Division Series begins Friday in Washington. It begins there, as opposed to on the north side of Chicago, because the Washington Nationals have been a better team than the Chicago Cubs over the course of 162 regular season games. But injuries and Chicago’s strong finish tell a more complicated story that makes this series harder to predict.

CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 05:   Willson Contreras #40 of the Chicago Cubs is tagged out at third base by Anthony Rendon #6 of the Washington Nationals in the 1st inning at Wrigley Field on August 5, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Incredibly, the Nationals played just 42 total games against teams .500 or better this season, going 23-19. The Cubs, meanwhile, played 70 (35-35), pulling away down the stretch from a far more competitive NL Central, while the Nats cruised along as the only NL East team with a winning record for the second time in four seasons. That’s not their fault — but it means the Cubs have played nearly 70 percent more games against ostensibly contending teams. The Cubs have actually scored more runs (822-819) and hit more home runs (223 to 215) than Washington. They’ve drawn more walks (622 to 542), reaching base at a higher rate (.338 to .332). They were the NL’s best team in the second half of the season and the only Senior Circuit club to win 20 of its last 30 games. Their starters were the best in the league in the second half of the season. The Nats, meanwhile, finished with the top three pitchers in the NL in bWAR, including the likely back-to-back Cy Young Award winner in Max Scherzer. When, exactly, he will throw in the series remains something of a mystery, though, and the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta won’t pitch until Game 4, adding further intrigue. Flip through the slides to see the biggest questions Washington must find the answers to in order to advance. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) (Getty Images/Jonathan Daniel)
Is the full-strength offense at full strength? When Bryce Harper got hurt, the Nationals saw their offensive production plummet — removing an MVP-caliber player will do that to a lineup. But it wasn’t just Harper’s absence that caused the drop-off. Above are the first-half/second-half slash line splits for the stalwarts of the Washington lineup. Those differences — other than Werth’s — aren’t too dramatic, but they add up. The Nats had the league’s third-best offense by OPS before Harper’s injury, one that dropped to 28th in his absence. Even Howie Kendrick’s hot start in a Nats uniform has fizzled, after a thrilling August (.357/.396/.619) gave way to less-than-pedestrian September (.229/.299/.357). Harper and Trea Turner are back in the fold, though the former only logged 20 plate appearances down the stretch, posting a .167/.250/.167 line with no homers. Will Harper regain his early season form? Will the rest of the bats hit more like they did early in the year? One of the only hitters that has gotten stronger is Adam Lind, who continues to rake, especially against right-handed pitching. Will Dusty be willing to sit his veteran left fielder in favor of Lind against a crafty-righty, like Kyle Hendricks in Game 1?
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 29:  manager Dusty Baker #12 of the Washington Nationals argues a pitch and is ejected in the sixth inning during a baseball game against the Chicago Cubs at Nationals Park on June 29, 2017 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
Can Dusty Baker stay a step ahead of Joe Maddon? Game 5 of the 2016 NLDS came down to a handful of plays and was affected heavily by the decisions the two managers did and didn’t make down the stretch. Baker pulled Max Scherzer after the game-tying home run in the top of the 7th and the skippers danced through pitching changes and pinch-hitters, with the Dodgers’ bench winning the day (Howie Kendrick and Carlos Ruiz each with pinch-singles), then the Nationals countering (Chris Heisey pinch-homer) in the bottom half. Ultimately, Dave Roberts turned to three-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw in the bottom of the ninth with the winning run on base, where Baker was left with only rookie Wilmer Difo to counter, the season on the line. Baker draws another tough managerial matchup with Maddon this year. The Cubs have shown their flexibility both in terms of starting lineup and mid-game moves, even a willingness to reposition the occasional pitcher into the outfield for a batter or two to save an arm. Can the more traditional Baker react in the moment to pull the right strings? Is he willing to use his best relievers when they are needed most, even if that’s before the late innings? (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images) (Getty Images/Mitchell Layton)
Washington Nationals starting pitcher Tanner Roark smiles in the dugout before an interleague baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels at Nationals Park Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Who starts Game 4? Last year, the Nats took a 2-games-to-1 series lead into a road Game 4 in Los Angeles and elected to “play it safe,” allowing Joe Ross to start while keeping Max Scherzer for Game 5 on full rest. We all know how that worked out. Unless one of these teams sweeps, the Nats will find themselves either up or down 2-games-to-1 come Tuesday morning. If they’re up again, as they were last year, do they hand the ball to Tanner Roark, who has been alright, but has posted the highest ERA (4.59) and WHIP (1.32) of his career? Roark has also allowed a career-high 23 home runs, six more than in each of the past two seasons. If the wind is blowing out at Wrigley, does Baker hope for the best and run him out there anyway? The scenario is complicated further this year by Scherzer’s hamstring, which has cost him his Game 1 start and rendered him ostensibly unavailable to pitch in Game 4. That means the short-rest starter available would be Strasburg. Is Baker willing to put him in that situation? What if they’re down 2-games-to-1? Does the calculus change then, sending Strasburg out to save the season, then having all hands on deck ready for a Game 5? With Joe Maddon throwing Jake Arrieta — who has been downright dominant in the second half, but is recovering from his own leg injury — in Game 4, how will Baker counter? (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) (AP/Alex Brandon)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 29: Starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Washington Nationals throws a pitch in the first inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Nationals Park on September 29, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Which Stephen Strasburg will we see? The Nationals are heading to their fourth postseason in six years, but in all that time, Stephen Strasburg has pitched exactly one playoff game. That was a Game 1 loss in the 2014 NLDS, where he threw a pedestrian five innings of work, allowing eight hits and two runs (one earned) while walking one and striking out just two. Strasburg has been dominant since coming off the disabled list in mid-August, only allowing earned runs in two of his eight starts. Over that stretch, he is 5-1 with an eye-popping 0.84 ERA (5 ER/53.2 IP), striking out 63 while allowing just 44 baserunners. He hasn’t allowed a home run since August 19. Even without Scherzer in Game 1, the thought of a fully-activated Strasburg taking the ball should be terrifying for any National League opponent. It won’t take us long to know what we’ll get — he’s slated to toe the rubber in Game 1. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images) (Getty Images/Patrick McDermott)
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CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 05:   Willson Contreras #40 of the Chicago Cubs is tagged out at third base by Anthony Rendon #6 of the Washington Nationals in the 1st inning at Wrigley Field on August 5, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 29:  manager Dusty Baker #12 of the Washington Nationals argues a pitch and is ejected in the sixth inning during a baseball game against the Chicago Cubs at Nationals Park on June 29, 2017 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
Washington Nationals starting pitcher Tanner Roark smiles in the dugout before an interleague baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels at Nationals Park Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 29: Starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Washington Nationals throws a pitch in the first inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Nationals Park on September 29, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)


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