Yankees find life as C.C. Sabathia turns back the clock

Sabathia gem helps cut Yankees ALCS deficit in half

The New York Yankees were in desperate shape entering Game Three of the 2017 American League Championship Series.

The Yanks trailed the Houston Astros by two games to none in the best-of-seven series. A loss back home in the Bronx would put them in an almost impossible 3-0 hole.

Manager Joe Girardi handed the ball to 37-year old, 17-year veteran C.C. Sabathia for the pivotal starting assignment on the mound.

Sabathia delivered, and then some. He would shut out the tough Houston lineup for six innings over which he threw 99 pitches. The big lefty surrendered just three hits, walked four, and struck out five batters in what he described as a “smoke and mirrors” performance per MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch.

Despite his age, there is no one his team would have wanted more in that position. Per Hoch, Sabathia is now 10-0 with a 1.69 ERA in 13 starts following a Yankees loss during the 2017 regular season and postseason.

“Obviously you want to go out and have a good performance in the playoffs and give us a chance to get back in the series. Hopefully we did that tonight. We can come out tomorrow, swing the bats and score some more runs.” ~ Sabathia, per Hoch

Swing the bats they did last night as well. The Bronx Bombers came out bombing early and often against Houston starter Charlie Morton. The veteran right-hander yielded seven earned runs on six hits and two walks over just 3.2 innings of work.

Todd Frazier got it started in the bottom of the second inning. The former Little League World Series hero reached out and poked a three-run homer just over the right field wall. That blast got the offense rolling in what would become an eventual 8-1 Yankees victory.

For all of the offensive fireworks that followed, including yet another prodigious home run from mammoth rookie Aaron Judge, it was the work of Sabathia in keeping Houston’s own potent offense in check that would make the biggest difference.

With the left-hander taking the hill against his club, Houston skipper A.J. Hinch loaded his lineup with right-handed hitters. Hinch had Evan Gattis and Cameron Maybin take the places of Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran. He also moved shortstop Alex Bregman up into the two-hole in the batting order.

None of it mattered in the end. Maybin delivered a hit, but it was one of only four that the Houston order would generate on the night against Sabathia and a trio of Yankees relievers.

He comes up big for us when we need him,’’ said outfielder Brett Gardner per Mark Herrmann for Newsday. “He’s a big-game pitcher. He might not have the velocity that he used to have, but he’s a better pitcher and has better command than he’s had. He knows what he’s doing out there. We’re lucky to have him on our side.”

SABATHIA’S BIG LEAGUE HISTORY

Sabathia was the first round pick of the Cleveland Indians all the way back in the 1998 MLB Draft at 20th overall. Just three years later he was in Cleveland, winning 17 games as a 20-year old and finishing as the AL Rookie of the Year runner-up to a legend named Ichiro Suzuki.

In parts of eight seasons with the Tribe, Sabathia amassed a 106-71 record. He was the 2007 American League Cy Young Award winner, as well as a three-time AL All-Star.


With Sabathia headed for free agency, the Indians dealt him to the Milwaukee Brewers at the 2008 trade deadline. He went 11-2 for the Brew Crew, helping them to the playoffs, and then entered free agency.


Entering his age 28 season, an ace-caliber starting pitcher, Sabathia was one of the most coveted free agents on the market. He received a huge nine-year, $202 million dollar contract from the Yankees. That deal expires following this season.




With the Yankees, Sabathia has added on another 120 victories to his personal career win column. He also has three more AL All-Star Game nods, has finished in the top four of the AL Cy Young voting three times, and helped lead New York to their last World Series championship in 2009.

GEM CUTS YANKS DEFICIT IN HALF


We wanted him on the mound tonight,” Girardi said per Peter Botte of the New York Daily News. “We thought we had the right guy on the mound. Six innings, just an outstanding effort. Couldn’t ask for anything more.

Adam Warren followed Sabathia, tossing a pair of shutout innings. The only Houston offense was generated off Dellin Betances in the top of the 9th inning, but Tommy Kahnle came in to shut the Astros down and close out the victory.

The turn-back-the-clock Sabathia win cuts the Yankees deficit to 2-1 now, with the next two games slated for Tuesday and Wednesday. Those will once again take place in the postseason hotbed of Yankee Stadium.

On Tuesday for a late afternoon 5pm EDT start, Girardi will send Sonny Gray to the mound. Hinch will go with Lance McCullers in Game Four. Both managers will be hoping for a performance as clutch as the one delivered by Sabathia on Monday night.

Red October: Justin Turner beats the champs

Turner’s walkoff homer wins NLCS Game Two for Dodgers

The drama of October postseason baseball continued to unfold in a big way in Sunday night’s Game Two of the 2017 National League Championship Series.

The host Los Angeles Dodgers held a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven NLCS. Now they were battling the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs into the bottom of the 9th inning with the two teams tied at 1-1 on the Dodger Stadium scoreboard.
There is an old sports axiom that states “if you want to be the champ, you gotta beat the champ.” That is exactly the task in front of this latest version of what has become a perennially disappointing Dodgers ball club.
The Dodgers have not won a World Series championship in nearly 30 years. Not since a gimpy Kirk Gibson caused Vin Scully to disbelieve what he had just seen in October of 1988. Not since Orel Hershiser was acing it on the mound, rather then commenting on aces from the broadcast booth.
Ten times since, Los Angeles has advanced to the postseason. Ten times they and their fans have gone home disappointed. Six times the team didn’t even advance past the NLDS.
The disappointment has been particularly difficult in recent years. The Dodgers have now captured five consecutive NL West crowns. But their regular season successes have ended in postseason failure each of the previous four years.
The Dodgers organization and fans wear those recent years and even decades of disillusionment like an albatross around their collective necks.
So as the game rolled on still tied, the specter of a tough loss haunted their thoughts. If the Cubs pulled it out, the series would be tied at a game apiece with the next three scheduled for Wrigley Field in Chicago.

BOTTOM OF THE NINTH OPENS
The mercurial Yasiel Puig led off the bottom of the 9th by drawing a walk from Cubs lefty reliever Brian Duensing. The Cuban native known as ‘The Wild Horse’ was then bunted to second on a sacrifice from pinch-hitter Charlie Culberson. When yet another pinch-hitter, Kyle Farmer, struck out swinging, there were two outs.
Farmer had pinch-hit for Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, who had struck out two while throwing just 13 pitches in the top of the 9th inning. The big lights-out righty from Curacao was now out of the game, a boon to the Chicago hitters.
Joe Maddon, the Cubs respected skipper, strode to the mound and took the ball from Duensing’s hand. He motioned out to his bullpen, calling in right-hander John Lackey to face a pair of right-handed hitting Dodgers bats.
Lackey is normally a starting pitcher. This was the second season in Chicago of his now 15-year career, and 59 of his 60 appearances in a Cubs uniform have come in a starting assignment.
But here in the postseason, Lackey has become the odd-man out of the rotation. In fact, Maddon had just used him out of the pen the previous day in Game One, with Lackey tossing 27 pitches over 1.2 innings of work.
Chris Taylor was the first of the Dodgers right-handers that the 38-year old would face. The two battled to a full count, and then Lackey buried a fastball low into the dirt for ball four.
Now there were runners at first and second with two outs. Striding to the plate was Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner.
WHO IS JUSTIN TURNER?
Turner has hair as fire-engine red as there has been in the game in some time, perhaps since the early days of ‘Le Grande Orange‘ himself, Montreal Expos and New York Mets icon Rusty Staub. Not only the coloring makes him distinctive, but Turner also wears his hair long and wild, and he highlights the look with a long, full, red beard.
A local kid from Long Beach, California, Turner will turn 33 years old late next month. He played at Mayfair High School in Lakewood, less than an hour south of Los Angeles. Turner then became a seventh round selection of the Cincinnati Reds in the 2006 MLB Draft out of Cal-State Fullerton.
Over the next eight years, Turner bounced from Cincy to Baltimore to the New York Mets. Only once, in the Big Apple in 2011, did he see more than 100 games. He registered a career high of 51 RBI and 49 runs scored that year, and in 2013 he hit seven home runs for the Mets, also a career high.
As spring training was approaching for the 2014 season, Turner signed for $1 million as a low-cost free agent with the Dodgers. In a utility infield role, Turner played 59 games at third base, 15 at shortstop, and 14 at second base. He hit for a fantastic .340 average with a .404 on-base percentage as well.
The following year he became the full-time starter at the hot corner for the Dodgers, and set career highs with 16 homers, 60 RBI, and 55 runs scored. He also continued to hit for average with a .294 mark. And then he changed his offensive game.
A year ago, Turner began selling out a bit more for power. Though his average dipped to a still-respectable .275, he crushed 27 homers, drove in 90 runs, and became a force in the middle of the lineup. He finished 9th in the 2016 NL MVP voting following the big season.
This year, Turner has been able to find a happy medium, making him an even more dangerous and valuable all-around hitter. He slashed .322/.415/.530 with 21 home runs, 32 doubles, and 71 RBI. All that production while missing nearly a full month to injury from mid-May to mid-June.
RED OCTOBER IN DODGER BLUE
This was the setup as Turner stepped into the batter’s box to face Lackey. Two outs in the bottom of the ninth, one out away from tense extra innings. The winning run out at second base with speed in Puig. The veteran hitter and pitcher set for their confrontation.
With the game-winning run at second base, Lackey buried a first-pitch cutter in the dirt to fall behind. For his second offering to Turner, he tried to come over the strike zone with a four-seam fastball. Either Lackey was hoping that Turner would take a strike, or he simply made a mistake, or both.
Lackey’s four-seamer broke right over the center of the plate, coming down the pike at 92 miles per hour. Turner wasn’t taking. He put a perfect swing on the ball, driving it high and deep to center field. Lackey turned and looked up immediately, praying that the actual trajectory of the ball wouldn’t be what his veteran senses told him. 
Center fielder Leonys Martin, who came in as a defensive substitute in a double-switch with Lackey, was playing shallow, hoping to cut off a single and keep Puig at third or throw him out at the plate. He broke back and ran full tilt to the wall, knowing this was bad. The only chance the Cubs had now was if somehow Martin could run this one down.
Martin hadn’t even reached the warning track before he knew the effort was futile. He pulled up, hands outstretched as they touched the wall. The ball sailed an easy 10-15 feet over that wall, into the waiting glove of joyous Dodgers fan Keith Hupp.

Turner put out both arms, both index fingers extended in celebration as he rounded first base. The Dodger Stadium crowd was roaring the whole way, and Turner was mobbed by his delirious teammates as he reached home plate.
WEIGHT OFF LA – FOR NOW
The three-run walkoff home run gave Los Angeles a 4-1 victory, and put them ahead by two games to none as the series now heads to Chicago.
Just as importantly, the blast gave the Dodgers some mental and emotional breathing room. They still need to win two more games. But the task just went from doubtful to something more than hopeful. 
Los Angeles will now take the field in Chicago buoyed by that Turner long ball. The man with the flowing red hair and beard had turned would could have been a Dodger blue nightmare into his own red October dream.

NLCS: Los Angeles Dodgers vs Chicago Cubs preview and prediction

The Dodgers and Cubs meet in a repeat NLCS

For the second consecutive season the National League Championship Series will be contested by the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers.

The two teams engaged in a spirited series last October, eventually won by the Cubs in six games. Chicago would then go on to defeat the Cleveland Indians, winning the franchise first World Series in more than a century.

A year ago, Chicago took the opener. But LA then received back-to-back pitching gems from Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill, shutting out the Cubs twice to take a 2-1 series lead.

After that, it was all Chicago. The Cubbies bats awoke with a vengeance to take the final three games by a combined 23-6 score.

This season, the Dodgers staggered out of the gate, going 10-12 over the first few weeks of April. But from April 27 through August 25 they accumulated an unreal 81-24 record.

That four month stretch of dominance allowed the Dodgers to run away with the National League West Division race. Even a month-long slump over which they lost 20 of 25 games would not allow either the Arizona Diamondbacks or Colorado Rockies, both eventual NL Wildcard teams, to make a dent in the division.

Los Angeles would recover to take eight of their final 10 games, finishing with 104 wins and an 11-game cushion over Arizona. The 104 victories gave them the best mark in all of Major League Baseball, and were the most by any Dodgers team in more than four decades.

The Dodgers would stay hot in the postseason as well, sweeping the 93-win Diamondbacks in three games in a National League Division Series.

Over in Chicago, the defending World Series champion Cubs had a much tougher go of things in the 2017 regular season. They would ultimately win 92 games and a second consecutive NL Central crown by six games. But that would not be decided until September, following spirited challenges from the upstart Milwaukee Brewers and arch-rival Saint Louis Cardinals.

That tougher road would continue in their NLDS against the Washington Nationals. The Cubs and Nats split the first four games, with Chicago taking a pair of low-scoring 3-0 and 2-1 affairs. Washington won by 6-3 and then in a 5-0 shutout behind Stephen Strasburg to send the series to a deciding game.

In that decisive Game Five, the two National League giants threw hay makers at one another. At the end of the battle in our nation’s capital, it was the Cubs left standing following a 9-8 victory.

The Dodgers are led by skipper Dave Roberts in his second year at the helm. Roberts has guided the LA club to division crowns in each of those two seasons.

The Cubs manager is the colorful Joe Maddon. The longtime skipper in Tampa Bay, Maddon guided the Rays to a pair of AL East crowns and the 2008 American League pennant. Now in his third season in the Windy City, he has an all-time managerial record of 1,073-922 and that 2016 World Series crown.

The Dodgers lineup receives most of their offense from five players. Two of them, shortstop Corey Seager and first baseman Cody Bellinger, are the 2016 NL Rookie of the Year and the likely 2017 ROY respectively.

A pair of 27-year olds have emerged as the most pleasant surprises this season. Left fielder Chris Taylor hit for a .288/.354/.496 slash line with 21 homers, 72 RBI, 85 runs scored, and 17 steals. Austin Barnes has taken over primary catching duties. His big 6th inning homer off Dbacks ace Zack Greinke in the NLDS Game Three helped the Dodgers clinch that series.

The mercurial Cuban right fielder known as “the Wild Horse”, Yasiel Puig, put together his finest season. The final influential lineup piece is third baseman Justin Turner. Known for his long red hair and beard, Turner is also one of baseball’s most underrated superstars.

There are plenty of veterans to provide Roberts with lineup support. They include Logan Forsythe, Chase Utley, Andre Ethier, and Yasmani Grandal.

On the mound, Roberts will go with his ace Kershaw in the opener. You can expect to see the lefty, one of the top pitchers of this generation, to come back twice more in the series if needed.

The lefty Hill will go in Game Two, followed by right-hander Yu Darvish in Game Three. Another lefty, Alex Wood, will start Game Four. If the series continues beyond that, expect Kershaw to start Game Five, and then to be available in a decisive seventh game.

The Dodgers bullpen is anchored by one of baseball’s top closers. Kenley Jansen is a big, 30-year old right-hander. He saved 41 games this year with a 1.32 ERA and 0.746 WHIP in his second consecutive NL All-Star campaign. Jansen allowed just 44 hits over 68.1 innings with a dominating 109/7 K:BB ratio.

Between his starting pitcher and his lights-out closer, Roberts will lean heavily on righties Kenta Maeda and Brandon Morrow, and left-handers Tony Cingrani and Tony Watson. He is likely to also have right-handers Pedro Baez and Josh Fields available.

Maddon is well aware of what it takes to beat good pitching in October. “Mr. Kershaw, obviously, and they’ve got Darvish, etc. Listen, we just went through Strasburg and Scherzer, and that’s no day at the beach either. When you get to this time of the year, you really have to be prepared to beat good pitching, which they have.

The Cubs group of hitters have proven they can beat that good pitching. One of the deepest and most versatile lineups in the game today is led by the 2016 NL MVP in third baseman Kris Bryant and clutch first baseman Anthony Rizzo.

Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras, Javier Baez, Albert Almora, and Jason Heyward are all 20-somethings and all are talented enough that they can be difference-makers in a particular game.

The old man of the team is versatile 36-year old Ben Zobrist, who followed Maddon from Tampa to Chicago and still contributes heavily. When he takes the field in the opener, Zobrist will be participating in his 60th MLB postseason game over the last decade.

The biggest question mark in this series may be what Maddon decides to do with his starting rotation. Even as late as Saturday morning, the starter for Game One has not been announced.

Maddon could choose to go with lefty summer acquisition Jose Quintana, who tossed 2/3 of an inning in relief during Game Five against Washington just two days ago in the NLDS.

He could also come with righty John Lackey, who won a dozen games and started 30 games in the regular season. The veteran turns 39 years old in a couple of weeks, has 26 games of postseason experience, and is well-rested after not seeing any NLDS action.

I would expect to see Maddon go with those two as starters in the first two games in some order. They would be followed by Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, and Kyle Hendricks. But that’s only what I would do.

The good news is that whomever becomes the choice to start, there is plenty of talented bullpen support available should they get into early trouble. Maddon should have righties Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards, and closer Wade Davis available. From the left side it would be Justin Wilson, Brian Duensing, and Mike Montgomery. And if he doesn’t start, Lackey would be available as well.

The Dodgers had the best record in Major League Baseball this season and swept their NLDS opponent. The Cubs are the defending world champions and play with confidence and swagger. This should be a fascinating matchup.

During the regular season, the Dodgers took four of the six meetings between the two clubs. But I am going to call it for the defending champs. I believe that the Cubs have the talent to take out the Dodgers by that same margin. Call it Chicago in six games.

ALCS: Houston Astros vs New York Yankees preview and prediction

Judge (top), Altuve lead teams into ALCS

The Houston Astros are right where most baseball pundits thought they would be when the 2017 MLB postseason began. The club will begin play in the American League Championship Series beginning on Friday night.

The Astros finished 101-61, the second best record in the American League. The surprise is that they will be opening this ALCS at home in Minute Maid Park.

The vast majority of those pundits, myself included, believed that Houston would be traveling to Cleveland to face the Indians, who won 102 games, the best record in the American League.

However, the Tribe were stunned in the ALDS by the New York Yankees. That was after favored Cleveland had jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the series.

Game Three was a nail-biting 1-0 affair. With a chance to sweep, the Indians had two runners on and two out in the 9th inning. But Carlos Santana’s drive to deep left-center field was hauled in by Aaron Hicks, and the Yanks stayed alive.

New York then tied the series up behind a gem from young ace Luis Severino, and finished the comeback with Brett Gardner’s huge two-out, two-run single in the top of the 9th inning of Game Five.

So it will be the Astros hosting those Yankees for the first two games. For Houston, this will mark the franchise first ALCS appearance. The club moved from the NL Central to the AL West for the 2013 season.

As members of the National League, the Astros won a half-dozen division crowns, making four appearances in the NLCS. They won just a single National League pennant in that time, going on to suffer a sweep at the hands of the Chicago White Sox in the 2005 World Series.

The Yankees went 91-71 to capture the top AL Wildcard playoff berth this season. They spotted the Minnesota Twins a 3-run first inning, and came roaring back to win that AL Wildcard Game by an 8-4 score. That led to the drama against Cleveland.

Houston captured their ALDS by 3-1 over the Boston Red Sox. The Astros scored three times over the final two innings, then held on at Fenway Park for a tough 5-4 victory in Game Four to seal the deal.

Both managers, Houston’s A.J. Hinch and the Yankees Joe Girardi, were big league backup journeyman catchers.

Hinch played seven seasons from 1998-2004 with seven different teams. He was with Oakland from 1998-2000, but did not appear in the 2000 ALDS in which the A’s were edged out 3-2 by the Yankees.

Girardi spent 15 MLB seasons spread across four organizations, with five of those coming as what would be considered the starting catcher. He won two World Series, with the Yankees in 1998 and 1999.

As a manager, Girardi guided New York to a victory in the 2009 World Series. The club has won three AL East crowns under his watch, but none since 2012. His Yankees teams have now come in second place in three of the last four seasons.

This is Hinch’s third year at the helm in Houston. He skippered the Arizona Diamondbacks for parts of two earlier seasons. This was the club’s first division crown in the American League, and so obviously the first under Hinch.

The Houston lineup is led by AL MVP candidate Jose Altuve.  The diminutive second baseman went 8-11 with five runs scored over the first three games of the ALDS, including a three-homer performance in the opener. He hit for a .346/.410/.547 slash in the regular season, with 24 homers and a team-high 32 steals.

The left-side infield combo of shortstop Carlos Correa and third baseman Alex Bregman is one of the youngest and most talented in all of baseball. Center fielder George Springer led Houston with 34 home runs and tied Altuve for the team lead with 112 runs scored.

In addition to their young talent, the Astros have a bevy of savvy veterans, many of whom bring playoff experience. The group includes Marwin Gonzalez, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Evan Gattis, Cameron Maybe, Yuli Gurriel, and Josh Reddick.

The Yankees also have a group of talented youngsters, including the lead AL Rookie of the Year contender in right fielder Aaron Judge. His prodigious power produced 52 home runs this year. Judge also led the team with 128 runs scored and 114 RBI.

Catcher Gary Sanchez slammed 33 homers during the season. He and slugging young first baseman Greg Bird each slammed a pair of ALDS home runs. The middle infield of second baseman Starlin Castro and shortstop Didi Gregorius is strong defensively, and both can hit, including with power.

There is plenty of veteran support in the Yankees lineup and dugout as well. Gardner, Hicks, Jacoby Ellsbury, Matt Holliday, Chase Headley, and Todd Frazier providing that experience and leadership.

Both Girardi and Hinch have chosen to go with an extra pitcher on their ALCS rosters, carrying a dozen arms apiece. This is a clear nod to the possibility of needing to utilize the “bullpenning” trend that has taken Major League Baseball by storm in the postseason.

Girardi is giving the ball to Masahiro Tanaka to take the mound for the opener, with Hinch opting for lefty Dallas Keuchel.

The 28-year old Tanaka won 13 games during the regular season. It was his brilliant Game Three outing that started the Yankees ALDS comeback. He shut the Indians out on three hits over seven innings in that start, striking out seven and allowing just one walk.

Keuchel was the 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner. The 29-year old won 14 games this season despite missing most of June and July to injury. Seven of his last nine regular season outings were of the Quality Start variety. He then won Game Two of the ALDS vs Boston with 5.2 strong innings.

Two years ago, it was Tanaka vs Keuchel when these same two clubs met in the AL Wildcard Game. In that one, Keuchel got the better with a brilliant outing, shutting the Yankees out on three hits over six innings in which he struck out seven. The Astros won 3-0 to advance.

Game Two will feature a pair of aces at opposite ends of the age and experience poles. The 23-year old Severino will go for New York. He will face 34-year old veteran trade deadline acquisition Justin Verlander for Houston.

Back in the Bronx for Game Three, the managers have announced a battle of veterans. 33-year old right-hander Charlie Morton is scheduled to go for Houston against 37-year old lefty C.C. Sabathia for the Yanks.

Girardi has already announced that Sonny Gray will be his Game Four starter. Hinch has not tipped his hand as yet for that game, which won’t take place until next Tuesday. That start likely will go to one from among a trio of righties: Collin McHugh, Lance McCullers, or Brad Peacock, depending on their usage out of the bullpen.

The Yankee skipper wouldn’t mind at all if this turned into a battle of the bullpens. He can call on one of the game’s best and deepest with right-handers Dellin Batances, Chad Green, Tommy Kahnle, Adam Warren, Jordan Montgomery, and David Robertson. From the left-side he can bring Jaime Garcia and his fireballing closer Aroldis Chapman.

Hinch will try to mix-and-match with right-handers Chris Devenski, Will Harris, Luke Gregerson, Joe Musgrave, and closer Ken Giles. He could also call on any of those potential Game Four starters listed previously. From the left side it’s only Francisco Liriano available, though Keuchel could conceivably see action later in the series.

These two ball clubs met seven times during the regular season. Houston captured five of the seven. The Astros won three of four at Yankee Stadium mid-May, then two of three in Houston as June turned to July.

Each of the Yankees wins this year over the Astros came when the Bronx Bombers opened up offensively. They scored 11 and 13 runs respectively in those two victories. New York scored just 13 runs in the five Houston victories.

I underestimated the Yankees against the Indians. I am not doing the same thing again – but I am once again picking against them. I am calling it Astros in six games. This should be an exciting series, one that I believe Houston will find enough in to advance to only the second World Series appearance in franchise history.

Nationals can prove nothing today – they must win two straight

Dusty Baker’s Nationals need two wins (photo: Chicago Tribune)

The Washington Nationals are on the brink of postseason elimination. Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.

This year’s version of the Nats will take the field on Wednesday afternoon at Wrigley Field in Chicago trailing the host Cubs by 2-1 in a best-of-five NLDS.

Whether they are willing to admit it or not, the Nationals will face another opponent today as well. That opponent lives inside their own heads and hearts.

This 2017 MLB postseason marks the fourth time in the last six years that Washington has participated in the National League Division Series. They have been eliminated in each of the previous three opportunities.

Winning today will not take the pressure off the Nats. Forcing a Game Five back at Nationals Park on Friday would not prove a thing. For the Nationals to show that this year’s team is different from those previous playoff clubs, they must win two straight.

At the start of this series against the defending World Series champions, Nationals manager Dusty Baker was quoted by Todd Dybas for The Washington Times on prior October failures.

“I don’t think about what you haven’t done. You think about what you can control, which is the power of now. We’re in it now. I’ve been through a number of these where there a lot of unlikely heroes. Guys that should be heroes aren’t and guys you don’t count on being heroes are. It’s hero time. Guys are born and made during this time.”

Baker has indeed “been through it”, as both a player and manager. This is his second year with the Nats, so the second time he has taken them this far. He skippered the Cincinnati Reds to the playoffs twice, the Cubs once, and the San Francisco Giants three times, including a tough seven-game loss in the 2002 World Series.

In last year’s NLDS, his Nationals team held a 2-1 lead on the Los Angeles Dodgers. In Game Four, the Dodgers tied things up with a 6-5 victory. The unlikely Joe Blanton entered to strike out Anthony Rendon with runners on 1st and 3rd and two outs after the Nats had rallied to tie at 5-5.

Then in the decisive Game Five, it was another 2008 Phillies World Series player who became the unlikely hero. This time it was Carlos Ruiz, whose pinch-hit RBI single put LA on top 2-1 in the top of the 7th inning. The Dodgers went on to a 4-3 victory, eliminating the Nationals.

This year, down 1-0 in games to the Cubs and facing a 3-1 deficit in Game Two with one out in the bottom of the 8th inning, Baker witnessed that “hero time” that he had been calling for at the start. It came in the form of lightening bolts from two more likely sources.

First, Bryce Harper delivered a mammoth game-tying two-run homer. Three batters later, Ryan Zimmerman crushed a go-ahead three-run home run to center field. Four outs from a 2-0 series deficit, the Nationals had their heroes, and had tied the series.

Unfortunately, those offensive heroics did not carry over to Game Three. Washington was held to just three hits by Jose Quintana and three Chicago relievers, eking out a 2-1 victory on Anthony Rizzo’s two-out RBI single in the bottom of the 8th inning.

The Cubs have not blown out the Nationals. What their pitching has done, aside from a four batter sequence in that Game Two 8th inning, is completely shut down the Washington lineup.

Trying to stay alive in Game Four, the Nationals will have to find a way to score against Cubs ace Jake Arrieta and a talented Cubs bullpen now rested thanks to Tuesday’s rainout. Baker will send Stephen Strasburg out to start, trying to keep his team’s season alive.

Strasburg was reported to be ill and unavailable had the game been played as originally scheduled. The one-day delay was apparently enough for him to recover sufficiently to at least give it the old college try for as long as he can remain effective, and then turn it over to the pen.

The franchise has played in Washington as the Nationals since 2005. Prior to that, there were 36 seasons as the Montreal Expos. In all that time north of the border, there was just one playoff series, a 3-2 loss to the Dodgers in the 1982 NLCS.

The Nationals still have the talent and firepower to win back-to-back games from the Cubs and capture this series. Now, that is exactly what they must do. Win two straight, or as with all four previous postseason teams over the franchise’ 48 previous years, they will fail to win a playoff series, and will go home disappointed.