With the (45-30) Washington Nationals holding the best record in the National League and the (38-37) Chicago Cubs closing in on the Milwaukee Brewers for the best record in the NL Central, it is very likely this series between two of the league’s best, could replay in October in the playoffs.
The postseason is still a long way off and both teams will be focused on today’s Game 1 (7.05pm ET) and on entering the midseason break on a high note. For the Nationals, that means being able to maintain their nine game NL East lead and defeating the defending World Series champions in the process. For the Cubs it means being able to beat the league’s best team and using that as a springboard for what has been an up-and-down year.
The Nationals are coming off of a three-game series with the Cincinnati Reds, which saw Washington take two of the three from the home team. This was the first series in the last three that the Nationals won. The team is just 6-5 in their last 11.
Chicago meanwhile is 5-6 in their last 11 and is coming off a disappointing series split against the Miami Marlins. The team has failed to score runs recently, with only three of their last 10 games seeing them notch more than six.
Keep reading for our full preview of Game 1 of this pivotal series, concluding with our betting picks and predictions.
By the Numbers: Chicago Cubs
One of the Cubs’ biggest strengths last year was their dominant offense. It was a large part of the reason the team was able to win their first World Series championship in 108 years.
This year Chicago is barely a middle of the pack team. They rank just 16th in all of baseball (9th in the NL) in runs scored, an awful 29th in hits, 12th in home runs, 17th in total bases and 17th in RBI. Additionally, the team has the 29th ranked batting average in the MLB at just .240 and the 15th ranked on base percentage at .327.
Compared to last year, these are not the kind of numbers the Cubs and their fans were hoping to see, especially given that Chicago entered the year as the sportsbooks’ favorites to win the World Series for a second year in a row.
Players like Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, who was recently demoted to AAA Iowa and last year’s MVP Kris Bryant, who is barely hitting above .260, have all suffered this year from the plate. Bryant is actually the team’s leading hitter, which is a far cry from when he was the leading hitter last year while boasting a .300-plus batting average.
Fortunately for the Cubs though, it is their pitching that has helped the team keep its head above water as the offense still looks to click on all cylinders.
Behind the efforts of Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and John Lackey among others, the Cubs have a top-10 ranked pitching staff. Chicago is seventh (3rd in the NL) in ERA, fifth in batting average against and 10th in strikeouts. The Cubs also have the fourth best bullpen in baseball, a distinction that cannot be undervalued in the modern age of the game.
By the Numbers: Washington Nationals
The Cubs will need all of the pitching they can get because, against the Nationals, they’ll be facing baseball’s finest when it comes to production at the plate.
The Nationals lead MLB in runs, are second in hits, fourth in home runs, second in total bases, first in RBI and are tied for first with the game’s best batting average of .279. To put that in context of the Cubs not having a single batter right now hitting above .265, the Nationals don’t have a single batter who has played at least 50 games hitting under that mark. Washington is led by Ryan Zimmerman’s .350 average and not far behind him is Ryan Murphy at .342 (these are the two top batting averages in baseball). Four additional players are also above the .300 mark and that doesn’t even include Bryce Harper who is just hitting .297.
Offensively, the Nationals are as dangerous as anybody and they have the depth to boot. From a pitching perspective, the numbers aren’t as great, but the team is still top-10 in most categories including ninth in ERA, sixth in lowest number of walks allowed, ninth in batting average against and ninth in total strikeouts.
If you had to find a weakness for this team however it would undoubtedly be the team’s bullpen. The Nationals are the best team in baseball but they could be even better if not for a bullpen which has proven that no lead is safe. It is the only reason why the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves are hanging around in the NL East.
Just a week ago the Nationals blew their fifth game when leading after eight innings, which is the most in baseball and is already one more compared to what the team had given up last year. Speaking of last year, the Nationals finished the season with the second best bullpen in MLB. This was the sixth time in the last seven years that the team had finished within the top-10 of bullpen ERA. This year, they are on pace to finish 28th.
Our Preview’s Cubs at Nationals Predictions & Betting Picks Verdict
Taking the mound for the Cubs in Game 1 is Eddie Butler, a 26-year-old righty who is in his first season with the squad. Butler has a 4.19 ERA and 25 strikeouts on the year. He will be opposed by a much greater success story in Gio Gonzalez. The Nationals’ 31-year-old lefty has a 2.96 ERA (6th in NL), 87 strikeouts and a 7-1 record, which equates to a league best .875 winning percentage.
Gonzalez will no doubt be asked to pitch as long as he can to avoid the bullpen involvement, something he has shown capable to do this season.
In this preview’s bid to beat the bookies, here are our picks for this Game 1 clash: