The National League is the Chicago Cubs’ to lose.

There are no locks in MLB‘s postseason, especially during the best-of-five division stage. Yet there’s no argument over which club is best positioned to reach the World Series.

During a dominant season, the 103-58 Cubs outscored opponents by 252 runs led by rightful NL MVP favorite Kris Bryant. Only the Boston Red Sox and Coors Field-fueled Colorado Rockies scored more runs. The Cubs also allowed an MLB-low 3.4 runs per game with help from a deep rotation and baseball’s best defense.

They will open their postseason Friday night against the San Francisco Giants, who rode ace Madison Bumgarner in Wednesday’s 3-0 Wild Card Game victory over the New York Mets. A heavy favorite to run the table, per Odds Shark, Chicago gets a San Francisco squad that crawled to the finish line after a strong first half.

If the Cubs take care of business, they would then challenge the winner of the Washington Nationals vs. Los Angeles Dodgers series. Although that National League Division Series matchup is much more even, the Nationals are hobbling into the playoffs without at least two key contributors.

After we look at the NLDS schedule and updated World Series odds, let’s take a deeper dive into the Dodgers-Nationals slate.

NLDS Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Washington Nationals

This isn’t going to be a fun series for hitters.

Then again, we could say the same about the entire National League bracket. All five postseason participants finished 2016 atop MLB’s team-ERA leaderboard:

The Dodgers’ pitching also registered a record-setting 1,510 strikeouts this season. Second on the all-time ledger? The 2016 Nationals, who collected 1,476 behind Max Scherzer’s MLB-high 284.

Some young pitchers are sacrificing longevity for whiffs. Not Scherzer, who sported a 0.97 WHIP through 228.1 innings. Jon Morosi of Fox Sports noted the historical significance of the Nationals ace’s stat line:

He should take the mound in Friday’s opening game. In an interview on ESPN Radio’s McNabb & Custer, via ESPN.comNationals manager Dusty Baker ruled out Stephen Strasburg in the NLDS due to a strained flexor mass in his pitching elbow.

Even though Strasburg coughed up six runs to the Dodgers in their only encounter of the season, his absence is a huge blow for Washington. Gio Gonzalez relinquished 19 runs in September, putting the rotation in doubt after Scherzer and likely Game 2 starter Tanner Roark.

It doesn’t help that the Dodgers will counter Scherzer with Clayton Kershaw.

Missing over two months didn’t stop the Dodgers ace from tying Noah Syndergaard for the highest WAR (6.5) among all pitchers. If not for his back injury, he would unanimously win the NL Cy Young Award with one of the greatest lines of all time.

For those who were worried about how he would return, he’s the same old Kershaw. In five starts off the disabled list, the star southpaw has a 1.29 ERA with 27 strikeouts and two walks over 28 innings.

Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt praised his ace to’s Ken Gurnick:

I feel every time out there there’s a chance he can throw a no-hitter. Seems so long ago, but that first half of the season, it was ridiculous. He’s not happy with his curveball. He expects perfection from himself. It’s to the extreme, but that’s what separates him. The commitment to be all-in on every pitch is what I like about him. For me, just to have him back out there gives you that stability. You feel like the game’s in order when he’s out there. His approach and mentality and his overall demeanor is a big lift for us right now.

Fellow southpaw Rich Hill, who validated last year’s improbable return with a 2.12 ERA and 0.99 WHIP in 110.1 innings, will follow Kershaw in Game 2. Luckily for the Nats, they notched MLB’s fourth-best OPS against lefties (.783) during the season. Less fortunate for them, one of the main catalysts to that success is out of commission.

Wilson Ramos scorched lefties with a .330/.377/.631 slash line in 2016, but the catcher tore his ACL during the season’s final week. Star sluggers Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy also missed some time down the stretch.

Rookie phenom Trea Turner can help overcome Los Angeles’ rolling offense that is led by fellow newcomer Corey Seager. But the Dodgers benefit from their predominantly left-handed rotation.

Given Los Angeles’ league-worst .622 OPS off southpaws, Washington may have to roll the dice on the struggling Gonzalez. He’s the only starting southpaw at its disposal. Baker is also going to need erratic reliever Oliver Perez to get some huge outs against Seager, Yasmani Grandal, Adrian Gonzalez and Joc Pederson.

The Dodgers won five of their six meetings over the Nationals this season, and the circumstances bode well for transferring that success into their postseason encounter.


Note: All advanced stats courtesy of FanGraphs and, unless otherwise noted.

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