The Chicago Cubs will take on the Washington Nationals in a 2017 National League Division Series starting this Friday. It might last three games. It might last four. It might last five.
Last year, the Cubs beat the San Francisco Giants in a 2016 NLDS three games to one, which makes it seem as though it wasn’t especially competitive.
Here’s the thing about these short series, though: the Cubs – by all accounts the best team in baseball – were extremely close to losing that series last year.
Recall, in game one, Johnny Cueto dominated the Cubs at Wrigley Field, easily matching Jon Lester. It took a Javy Baez homer that just barely caught the basket in the 8th inning for the Cubs to win that game. You remember that part. But do you remember that Buster Posey doubled off of Aroldis Chapman in the 9th inning, putting the tying run in scoring position? Or that Posey wasn’t able to score from first on an Angel Pagan double in the 4th inning?
A world where the Cubs lose that game is only inches from our own.
And then there’s Game Four, which you no doubt remember for the truly incredible four-run 9th inning in which the Cubs came roaring back to win the game and the series. Consider that, in that pivotal 9th inning, Willson Contreras’s game-tying single was a grounder up the middle that very easily could have found a glove. Javy Baez’s lead-giving single was the same. Jason Heyward’s sac bunt that came between those singles very nearly became an inning-ending double play.
A world where the Cubs lose that game is even closer to our own than the hypothetical Bad Game One World.
And if the Cubs lose just one of those two games, they go back to Wrigley Field for a Game Five that really could have gone either way. Heck, if the Cubs lose both of those games – which they very, very easily could have – the Giants win the series in four games, and we’re all left scratching our heads, subjected to an offseason full of “I guess they weren’t really that good derp derp” think pieces.
That’s the thing about these short series at the start of the postseason. They’re thrilling, and the better team certainly can prevail. And the better team might even have the better odds! But that’s far from guaranteeing a win, and last year’s NLDS should serve as a stark reminder of that fact, not a series that the Cubs dominated from start to finish.
That’s not to take anything away from the 2016 Cubs, of course. They played their hearts out in that series (and the two that followed), and they earned every bit of that series win. But there’s a world where they play just as hard and just as well … but still lose. Baseball, and the short series, is cruel that way.
Just some things to keep in mind as we look ahead to a short series against the Nationals. A series, by the way, where the Cubs figure to be underdogs.
Which means they have a perfect opportunity to demonstrate the cruelty of a short series to the Nationals and their fans.