WASHINGTON — The Cubs are engaging in psychological warfare, with all the subtlety of an air-raid siren.
They’re implying that they, the defending World Series champions, are as relaxed as pajamas heading into their first-round playoff series and that the Nationals, having lost in the first round in 2012 and 2014, are having the dream where you’re in high school English class and realize you’ve forgotten to wear clothes.
The Nationals’ response is something along the lines of, “Are not.’’
At stake with the mind games is . . . well, I’m not sure what’s at stake. The belief that one team can make another team nervous? Does that work?
Cubs veteran Ben Zobrist got off the first salvo the other day.
“I definitely think there’s probably a little bit more pressure on them,” he said. “They haven’t been out of this first series yet. Obviously, they’re very motivated to try to do that. But they know it’s a very, very big moment for them and their organization.”
Not a big moment or even a very big moment. A very, very big moment.
The Nationals are having none of it.
“The hard part is getting here and being one of the teams that gets to the dance,’’ outfielder Jayson Werth said. “We did that. In my mind, all the pressure is off. This is all gravy.’’
Last year, the Cubs embraced being World Series favorites because it meant that they won the most regular-season games and that they were damn good. But because the Nationals won more games in 2017 than the Cubs did (97-92) and own the home-field advantage in the National League Division Series, the Cubs have the term “underdog’’ in a bear hug.
For the Nationals, it’s Game 1 of the playoffs. For the Cubs, it’s Casual Friday.
“Going forward, we have really nothing to lose,’’ Cubs pitcher Jon Lester said. “We’re still a really good team, and we should win the World Series, but Washington was the second-best team in (the NL) and the Dodgers have a lot to lose just playing so well all year. Now you get into the playoffs, put that added pressure on yourself and you start pressing and not being who you are, and you look up and you’re heading home.
“I think we’re in a good place. I like this team being underdogs. I like that. We’ve got some very prideful guys on this team.’’
A storyline certain to linger is that Nationals manager Dusty Baker has more pressure than anyone else, some of it self-imposed, some of it imposed by others. He’s in the last year of his contract and would like a new deal. Beating the Cubs would greatly enhance his chances of getting one. He probably has a more complete team than Joe Maddon does with the Cubs. The Nats’ fan base wants to win a series. Now. Or else.
Baker, a former Cubs manager, has become a punching bag for Chicago fans who blame him for everything from the 2003 NL Championship Series collapse to global warming, so it’ll be a miracle if he can get out of bed for Game 1. Is that an accurate portrayal? Probably not, but the Cubs love the idea of the opposing manager being a basket case.
Washington probably loves that the Cubs won 11 fewer games this season than they did a year ago. See? It’s all about perception.
“The fun part about this time of year is everybody goes back to zero,’’ Lester said. “I really don’t care how many wins you had during the season. I don’t care what your ERA was, what your batting average was, how many home runs you hit. Everybody’s at zero. Everybody’s at square one.’’
Nice try on the pressure angle, the Nationals say.
“What makes our team so good is the ability to block some of that other stuff out,’’ closer Sean Doolittle said.
Let the real games begin. Please.
Follow me on Twitter @MorrisseyCST.