Predicting the outcome of Cubs-Nationals winner-take-all Game 5

Tony Andracki
NBC Sports Chicago

The Cubs know full well the crapshoot that is a one-game playoff.

After besting the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 2015 wild-card game and playing a tense, thrilling Game 7 last fall, winner-take-all games are nothing new to Joe Maddon and Co.

But while the Cubs are 2-0 in those winner-take-all games the last two years (and 4-1 overall in elimination games), anything can happen in one game. Things can shift on one play or one pitch and luck plays an enormous factor with so little wiggle room.

So you'll forgive Maddon if he and the Cubs didn't want this at all - a Game 5 in front of a packed, raucous Washington crowd with all hands on deck.

That's why Maddon went all in on Game 4, trying to lock up the NLDS at Wrigley Field Wednesday night, employing Jon Lester out of the bullpen for 11 outs. 

But a combination of Stephen Strasburg's wiffle ball action, a shaky defensive play and Michael A. Taylor's stunning grand slam, the Cubs' title defense now comes down to just one game with Kyle Hendricks on the hill vs. Gio Gonzalez.

The Nationals just announced Gonzalez as a starter Thursday afternoon. The Cubs jumped him early in Game 2 in Washington for three runs before ultimately blowing it in the eighth inning.

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The Cubs always want to get out to a good start, but the need for an early lead (hey, that rhymed!) is even greater in these one-game, winner-take-all postseason contests.

Especially because Max Scherzer looms in the bullpen for the Nationals. He threw 98 pitches on Monday night and is coming off a hamstring injury less than two weeks ago, so who knows how may pitches/innings Scherzer can throw Thursday night.

But his presence looms large, as well as a mostly-rested Nationals bullpen. If Gonzalez gets into any trouble, Dusty Baker can immediately turn to Game 4 starter-turned-watcher Tanner Roark, who has yet to pitch in this series. Or Scherzer could be the immediate call and the Nationals just ride him as long as they can.

The Cubs, meanwhile, will be almost assuredly be without Lester after he threw 55 pitches Wednesday night. Wade Davis and Carl Edwards Jr. also threw and combined to get zero outs in another eighth-inning collapse. 

Davis is a battle-tested veteran who is intensely even-keeled and Taylor's homer was only the second allowed by the Cubs closer in his postseason career (34.1 innings) and first as a reliever. But how many outs could he realistically go after throwing 11 pitches Wednesday? He's a former starter, but has gone over 30 pitches in an outing just six times since the start of 2014 (a span of 267 appearances) and has never reached the 40-pitch mark.

The Cubs will have Jose Quintana available out of the bullpen, after he matched Scherzer inning for inning Monday night. But that was his first postseason game ever and he hasn't appeared as a reliever since 2012, so if Maddon calls Q's number, it will be a foreign experience for the 28-year-old lefty.

The Cubs could use another patiently dominant outing from Hendricks and his 1.98 postseason ERA after lulling the Nationals offense to sleep in Game 1, but ultimately this game will come down to which offense is able to break out of its slump just enough to win.

The Cubs (.159 average, .514 OPS) and Nationals (.130, .493) have the two worst offenses in MLB postseasons this fall and have combined for just 20 runs in the first four games of this series.

The Nationals have scored 12 of those, nine of which have come in the two eighth-inning implosions in Games 2 and 4. Two of the other runs came of the unearned variety off Cubs errors in the last two games at Wrigley Field.

The positive news for the Cubs: They won't have to face Strasburg at all after striking out 22 times and scoring just two unearned runs against the Nationals stud righty in two games.

Prediction - Cubs 5, Nationals 4

Kris Bryant puts his first inning struggles (0-for-4, 4 Ks) behind him in the series and gets the Cubs on the board early with an opening-frame homer. He hits two longballs in the game as the Cubs' bats finally wake up and he makes Wednesday's Golden Sombrero (4 Ks) a distant memory.

Albert Almora Jr. and Kyle Schwarber (off the bench) combine for three hits and the Cubs pitch just enough to win, with Maddon cobbling together the bullpen behind yet another gutsy performance from Hendricks.

These two offenses are far too good to be kept down for long.

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