WASHINGTON — The Chicago Cubs’ defense of their championship gets its biggest test yet as their National League Division Series goes to a Game 5 on Thursday night. The narrative so far has been pitching, with Washington Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg throwing two gems, the latest while he was battling an illness ahead of Wednesday’s Game 4.
“They have been really good,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “We have been really good. … We’ve just got to stay in our lane — in other words, not chase [pitches]. But again, that’s easier said than done.”
It might be easier without Strasburg on the mound. He has struck out 22 Cubs in two NLDS starts and helped reduce Chicago’s batting average in the series to a paltry .159. With Max Scherzer available only out of the bullpen Thursday, the visitors might have an advantage. The Cubs’ current ace, Kyle Hendricks, is on the mound with an extra day of rest and a beauty of a Game 1 performance to use as confidence.
“He’s not shy to it,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said of Hendricks. “He’s no stranger to these situations. We have to score some runs for him. It’s that simple.”
That last point by Rizzo is a big one. The Cubs have scored eight runs in the series’ four games, and in a weird twist, over the course of their eight losses in the past two postseasons, they’ve been shut out five times, including Wednesday. When the Cubs get into strikeout mode, it can look ugly.
“We just have to keep grinding and have quality at-bats, and we’ll break through,” infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist said. “We know it’s win or go home.”
The reigning MVP is undoubtedly happy that there is another game in the series so quickly. Kris Bryant set a franchise record with four strikeouts in Game 4, as Strasburg made him chase his patented changeup. That has been Bryant’s toughest pitch in his three seasons in the big leagues. But that was Strasburg; nobody else among the Nationals is pitching at his level right now.
“As long as he’s not on the mound, we have a chance,” Cubs Game 4 starter Jake Arrieta said. “In fact, I like our chances.”
The Cubs said all along that they would rely on their experience to get them through any tough times. An elimination game on the road would qualify. They won Games 6 and 7 of the World Series last fall in Cleveland, so needing to pull off a Game 5 victory at Nationals Park is nothing new to this team.
“Just go out and have fun, but let’s come out with the win, too,” shortstop Addison Russell said.
Rizzo added: “It’s backs-against-the-wall time. We have to go to their place and do it.”
Relying on experience can help, but stringing some hits together wouldn’t be a bad thing, either. Or perhaps a few more free passes. The Nationals walked nine times in Game 4, giving them 16 for the series to the Cubs’ 12. Walks are usually Chicago’s specialty, but not so far. A change of approach at the plate combined with an ace on the mound is the hope for the Cubs. They know it, too.
“He pitched a great Game 1,” Zobrist said of Hendricks. “We need him to stop them again, and now we need to get the bats going.
“We like that pressure. We’ve had that pressure before. We look forward to it and look forward to coming out the victor.”
Repeating as World Series winners depends on it. There is no tomorrow.