WASHINGTON – If this series against the Nationals this week is the kind of playoff preview that a throng of media on Monday suggested at every turn and nearly every question, then the good news for the Cubs might be that they’re keeping a secret weapon out of sight until October.
“Ha,” said Jon Lester, who won’t face the Nationals this season. “I hope we’re not doctoring my rotations or anything.”
Wouldn’t have mattered if they did. Not if Max Scherzer is pitching like this if/when the Cubs see him again in October.
Scherzer took a perfect game one out deep into the sixth inning Monday on the way to a 4-1 victory over the Cubs in the opener of a three-game series between the teams with the top two records in the majors.
With four months to go before a potential high-stakes rematch against Dusty Baker’s NL East leaders, it’s stupid to try to draw conclusions from this series – or the Cubs’ four-game sweep last month – related to the playoffs.
Except this: The kind of pitching the Cubs faced Monday night – and against the Dodgers two weeks ago and the Giants a week before that – is what they should expect in October.
“In order to win in the playoffs you’ve got to beat good pitching, and he’s one of them,” Cubs catcher Miguel Montero said of Scherzer (8-4). “That’s fine. We beat him one time. He beat us this time. In the playoffs you see good pitching; that’s why they got to the playoffs.”
It’s how the Mets sent the Cubs home in October last year before reaching the World Series. And how the Cubs eliminated the Pirates in the wild-card game two weeks before that.
The last time the Cubs saw Scherzer they hit four home runs and scored seven against him in a victory last month at Wrigley Field.
In his next start he became the third pitcher in history to strike out 20 in a game. And by Monday, he seemed on a mission against the Cubs, striking out nine of the first 10 he faced and retiring 16 straight to open the game.
“I think he wanted some payback,” Montero said, referring to what he called the best-pitched game against the Cubs this season.
Montero and Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks both described Scherzer as “electric.”
Addison Russell’s line drive homer to left in the sixth quickly tied it. But Wilson Ramos untied it just as quickly leading off the bottom of the sixth, igniting a three-run inning that all but put the game away.
By the seventh inning, Maddon intentionally walked the bases full to push Baker to lift Scherzer for a pinch-hitter.
“You could have brought Sandy Koufax in at that point and it might have looked better,” Maddon said.
The Nationals’ seventh win in eight games made them the second team in the majors to reach 40 wins, joining the Cubs.
Of course, 40 wins in June doesn’t mean anything in October. And even if somebody wanted to use this series as a measuring stick for the Cubs, they’re not starting their two best pitchers in the series (Jake Arrieta and Lester).
But even the World Series veteran Lester looks around at potential playoff opponents as the season reaches the summer months.
“Obviously you look at the divisions and who’s leading and all that stuff. But right now we still have a long ways to go,” said Lester, the National League’s Player of the Week for week ending Sunday. “We get back from the break and go a couple weeks from there, and that’s when things get fun and I think you could start kind of narrowing it down. I wouldn’t count out the Mets in this division. Especially with the pitching they have.”
Which, if anything, was the gauntlet Scherzer threw down as the top two teams in the league face four months of taking care of business before a potential rematch with everything on the line.
“A lot of pitching. That’s what we ran into last year,” Maddon said. “We got through the Pirates game. St. Louis, we got through that. And then we ran into the Mets, and we didn’t put the ball in play enough. And that’s what we’ve really got to strive to do is just to at least move the ball and give ourselves a chance.”