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Cubs/Nationals

The Cubs' championship pedigree is beyond reproach, but they are no longer the prohibitive favorites to emerge in a loaded National League, and begin their title defense on the road against a Nationals squad that won 97 games. It will be Stephen Strasburg, not NL Cy Young frontrunner Max Scherzer, getting the call for Washington in Game 1, while Chicago counters with a red-hot Kyle Hendricks.

Chicago Cubs (Kyle Hendricks) at Washington Nationals (Stephen Strasburg), 7:31 PM ET

PECOTA odds of winning: 59% Nationals, 41% Cubs

Projected Starting Lineups

Cubs vs. Strasburg (R)

Pos.

L/R

PA

AVG/OBP/SLG

R

HR

RBI

SB

Jon Jay

CF

L

431

.297/.376/.377

65

2

34

6

Kris Bryant

3B

R

663

.296/.410/.539

111

29

73

7

Anthony Rizzo

1B

L

690

.273/.393/.508

99

32

109

10

Willson Contreras

C

R

428

.276/.356/.499

50

21

74

5

Ben Zobrist

LF

S

492

.234/.320/.378

58

12

50

2

Addison Russell

SS

R

383

.240/.305/.420

52

12

43

2

Jason Heyward

RF

L

479

.258/.326/.388

59

11

59

4

Javier Baez

2B

R

507

.271/.315/.479

75

23

75

10

The Cubs' explosive offense, which averaged just over five runs per game this season, is spearheaded by the dynamic duo of Bryant and Rizzo. He may get overshadowed, but Contreras is one of the most exciting young hitters in the game. Despite missing a chunk of the season to injury, he became just the 12th catcher in the last 20 years to eclipse the 20-home run plateau in a season before the age of 25. What happened to Zobrist this year is an even bigger mystery than why Seattle doesn’t have an NBA franchise right now. While Russell and Baez haven’t blossomed into elite offensive performers, their defensive prowess is virtually unmatched, and they remain the most exciting double-play combination in the game. Heyward still exists.

Nationals vs. Hendricks (R)

Pos.

L/R

PA

AVG/OBP/SLG

R

HR

RBI

SB

Trea Turner

SS

R

441

.283/.336/.450

74

11

45

45

Bryce Harper

RF

L

487

.317/.411/.596

93

29

87

3

Anthony Rendon

3B

R

602

.301/.404/.529

80

24

97

7

Daniel Murphy

2B

L

590

.320/.383/.542

93

23

93

2

Ryan Zimmerman

1B

R

574

.304/.357/.574

90

36

108

1

Jayson Werth

LF

R

284

.226/.320/.391

35

10

28

4

Michael Taylor

CF

R

427

.270/.317/.480

54

18

52

17

Matt Wieters

C

S

462

.223/.284/.342

43

10

52

1

The return of Harper changes the entire dynamic of the Nationals' lineup. Before suffering a freak knee injury on August 12, Harper was putting together a near carbon copy of his 2015 NL MVP season. Halloween isn’t until the end of the month, but October’s scariest moment is when you find out Harper turn 25 years old in 10 days. Rendon is one of the most underrated superstars in baseball. Turner is the young catalyst at the top of the order blessed with game-changing speed. Murphy and Zimmerman are the veteran leaders firmly entrenched in the middle of the order. You know about them already, but you probably missed the fact that Taylor nearly joined the exclusive 20/20 club this season.

Starting Pitchers

Cubs: Kyle Hendricks (140 IP, 3.03 ERA, 3.31 DRA)

This is a somewhat perplexing decision. I won’t go full Jim Rome (and launch into a scorching hot take) because this decision by manager Joe Maddon is certainly justifiable. It would be tempting to trust a grizzled postseason veteran like Jon Lester in this situation, but not after the way Hendricks closed out the regular season. Over his final 13 starts, the 27-year-old righty recorded a 2.19 ERA with 78 strikeouts and 19 walks over 78 innings. He never allowed more than three earned runs in a start. The last time he faced the Nationals, on August 4, Hendricks took a loss despite firing seven innings of two-run ball.

Nationals: Stephen Strasburg (175 IP, 2.52 ERA, 2.93 DRA)

It’s hard to believe it, but this will be just the second postseason start of the 29-year-old’s career. After missing last year’s NLDS against Los Angeles due to injury, he hasn’t made an October appearance since Game 1 of the 2014 NLDS. He’s been virtually unhittable since coming off the disabled list in mid-August. Over his final eight starts, Strasburg posted a 0.84 ERA with 63 strikeouts and just 10 walks over 53 2/3 innings. In his only start against the Cubs, back on June 28, Strasburg allowed just a pair of earned runs and struck out 13 over seven innings.

Outlook

In the words of the late Israeli psychologist Amos Tversky, “always keep one hand firmly on the data.” PECOTA has the Nationals as slight favorites for Game 1, and while it would be tempting to give the edge to the Cubs based on what they accomplished last season, the combination of Strasburg and home-field advantage may be too much for them to overcome on Friday night.

Diamondbacks/Dodgers

Electric southpaw Robbie Ray threw 34 pitches out of the bullpen to propel Arizona to a thrilling 11-8 victory over Colorado in the Wild Card game on Wednesday night. As a result, D-backs manager Torey Lovullo will hand the ball to 25-year-old Taijuan Walker for his first career playoff start. Meanwhile, Los Angeles closed out the regular season by winning 12 of their final 18 contests to finish with a MLB-best 104 victories and will kick off their championship quest with their ace, Clayton Kershaw, on the mound.

Arizona Diamondbacks (Taijuan Walker) at Los Angeles Dodgers (Clayton Kershaw), 10:30 PM ET

PECOTA odds of winning: 69% Dodgers, 31% Diamondbacks

Projected Starting Lineups

Diamondbacks vs. Kershaw (L)

Pos.

L/R

PA

AVG/OBP/SLG

R

HR

RBI

SB

David Peralta

LF

L

577

.293/.352/.444

82

14

57

8

A.J. Pollock

CF

R

446

.266/.330/.471

73

14

49

20

Paul Goldschmidt

1B

R

665

.297/.404/.563

117

36

120

18

J.D. Martinez

RF

R

489

.303/.376/.690

85

45

104

2

Chris Iannetta

C

R

316

.254/.354/.511

38

17

43

0

Brandon Drury

SS

R

445

.267/.317/.447

41

13

63

1

Jake Lamb

3B

L

635

.248/.357/.487

89

30

105

6

Ketel Marte

SS

S

225

.260/.345/.395

30

5

18

3

A pair of viable MVP candidates, Goldschmidt and Martinez, anchor Arizona’s formidable lineup, which averaged just over five runs per game (fourth-most in the NL) during the regular season. Given the Dodgers' abundance of left-handed starters, Pollock the clear x-factor in this series. He’s been plagued by injuries in recent years and has yet to fully return to the form we witnessed during his breakout campaign back in 2015, but he slugged .525 against lefties and profiles as the perfect table-setter in this series.

The bottom of the order is likely to be anchored by Iannetta. who enjoyed a nice bounce-back season mainly because he absolutely liquefied left-handed pitching (.300/.404/.563 in 94 plate appearances). Drury slumped in the second half and lost significant playing time to a pair of journeymen (Daniel Descalso and Adam Rosales) down the stretch, but he’s played regularly against lefties and should get the nod against Kershaw. For the second consecutive season, Lamb faded down the stretch, hitting just .204/.332/.403 with 10 homers in 268 plate appearances after the All-Star break. He hit just .144/.269/.288 with 56 strikeouts in 156 plate appearances versus southpaws in the regular season. He’s either going to bat in the bottom third of the order or come off the bench in Game 1.

Dodgers vs. Walker (R)

Pos.

L/R

PA

AVG/OBP/SLG

R

HR

RBI

SB

Chris Taylor

CF

R

565

.288/.354/.497

85

21

72

17

Corey Seager

SS

L

610

.291/.372/.474

83

22

76

4

Justin Turner

3B

R

541

.321/.415/.527

72

21

71

7

Cody Bellinger

1B

L

543

.266/.350/.581

87

39

96

10

Yasiel Puig

RF

R

568

.263/.345/.488

71

28

74

15

Chase Utley

2B

L

351

.238/.326/.407

43

8

34

6

Yasmani Grandal

C

S

482

.247/.308/.459

50

22

58

0

Curtis Granderson

LF

L

527

.212/.323/.452

74

26

64

6

Six months ago, Taylor was unceremoniously left off the Opening Day roster. The 25-year-old’s meteoric rise from prototypical utility infielder to center fielder and leadoff extraordinaire was one of the most compelling storylines of the season. Despite battling a persistent elbow issue over the final month, Seager nearly turned in his second consecutive six-WARP season. The undisputed lynchpin of the Dodgers' lineup, Turner is the proverbial straw that stirs the drink. Bellinger’s unbelievable rookie campaign may have been overshadowed by the absurdity of Aaron Judge’s own historic performance, but he’s the type slugger that can put an offense on his back for an entire series.

Puig is coming off arguably his most impressive season since his debut back in 2013. He’s still prone to the occasional baserunning gaffe or ground-ball double play, but his extraterrestrial defense in right field is a variable that could have a major impact on a close game. The bottom third of the Dodgers' order, which is likely to be comprised of Utley, Grandal, and Granderson, is loaded with hitters who see a ton of pitches and routinely cobble together lengthy at-bats. Simply put, there are no easy outs for an opposing pitcher.

Starting Pitchers

Diamondbacks: Taijuan Walker (158 IP, 3.49 ERA, 4.17 DRA)

With the aforementioned Ray pressed into service earlier in the week, Walker will be making the biggest start of his career. The righty had issues going deep into games, pitching beyond the sixth inning in just four of his 28 starts, which means that Arizona will be forced to lean heavily on its bullpen once again. Patrick Corbin and Zack Godley are the most likely candidates to get the call if Walker struggles early.

Dodgers: Clayton Kershaw (175 IP, 2.31 ERA, 3.30 DRA)

The 29-year-old southpaw has already cemented his legacy as the greatest pitcher of his generation. The only accomplishment missing from his future Hall of Fame plaque: World Series champion. For 21 starts, vintage Kershaw posted a 2.04 ERA with 168 strikeouts and just 24 walks over 141 1/3 innings before a back ailment, which cropped up mid-start on July 23, sidelined him until September 1. He wasn’t as dominant in six September starts, posting a pedestrian 3.48 ERA. Critics will always be quick to bring up his 4.55 career postseason ERA as evidence that he doesn’t come through in the playoffs, but he took a big bite out of that narrative in Game 5 against the Nationals last October, coming out of the bullpen on two days rest to close out the series. There’s nobody else the Dodgers would rather have in this situation.

Injuries/Availability

Arizona reliever Jimmie Sherfy has been dealing with triceps inflammation, but is expected to be available for Game 1. Shortstop Chris Owings, who has been out since fracturing his right middle finger on July 31, was left off the Wild Card roster, but has been rehabbing in instructional league games and could be a surprise addition to the NLDS roster.

Los Angeles has been dealing with a plethora of injuries down the stretch. The most notable is lefty specialist Luis Avilan, who will miss the NLDS due to shoulder soreness. Veteran first baseman Adrian Gonzalez was shut down for the rest of the season with back tightness in late September. opening up a postseason roster spot for pinch-runner Tim Locastro.

Outlook

“We got momentum baby. We got the big mo.” – Josh Lyman, The West Wing

The numbers don’t lie: Arizona owned the Dodgers during the regular season. Not only did they win 11 of their 19 meetings (including the final six), they also outscored them 99-71 in the process. They’re also coming off an energizing victory over Colorado earlier in the week. All of the pressure is on Los Angeles, who PECOTA has as the heavy favorites in Game 1 of the series. Even if the D-backs continue to ride the tidal wave of momentum and get to Kershaw early, the Dodgers still have a chance because of their deep bullpen, potent offense, and home-field advantage.

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