The Cubs are hoping to keep their quest alive to become the first repeat World Series champions since 2000, while the Nationals are seeking their first postseason series win since moving to Washington. Tonight, they'll meet in Game 5 of the National League Division Series presented by T-Mobile with a trip to the NL Championship Series presented by Camping World and a showdown with the Dodgers at stake.
"This is what you play for," Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "Everybody would love to go 11-0 and win the World Series; anybody who says they would rather not do that is lying to you. But that never happens. This is what playoff baseball is about. Unfortunately, in the past, we haven't been able to come through. But that's in the past."
After splitting the first two games at Nationals Park, the Cubs took Game 3 to move within one win of their third consecutive NLCS. But Stephen Strasburg, taking the ball after battling a flu-like virus the previous two days, was brilliant in Game 4, extending the series to a decisive Game 5 in a 5-0 Nats victory.
"Nobody thought it was going to be a three-and-done-type series," Cubs left-hander Jon Lester said. "It's two heavyweights going at it. We're going to the last round."
The Cubs will send Kyle Hendricks to the mound, hoping the right-hander can turn in a repeat performance of his Game 1 gem. Hendricks held the Nationals to two hits and three walks over seven scoreless innings, leading Chicago to a 3-0 victory.
"He's not shy of being in these situations," Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "We have to go out and score some runs for him, plain and simple."
Game 3 starter Jose Quintana will be available to back up Hendricks out of the bullpen, a role Lester filled in Game 4 behind Jake Arrieta.
Washington manager Dusty Baker chose Game 3 starter Gio Gonzalez over Tanner Roark to make the start a few hours before first pitch. Roark had been slated to pitch Game 4 before the Nationals decided to start Strasburg.
The pitchers have controlled the series for the most part; the Nationals' staff has a 1.64 ERA over the first four games, while the Cubs pitchers have a combined 2.57 mark.
Those numbers have meant tough times for the two offenses, which both finished the season ranked in the top three in the NL for runs scored. Washington has a .128/.256/.239 slash line in the series, while Chicago's stands at .159/.257/.258.
"We've just got to stay in our lane; in other words, not chase," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "But again, that's easier said than done. We have to be better in the zone. We have to force their pitchers in the zone more consistently and not miss your pitch when you see it. It really comes down to that."
While the Cubs dealt with talk of curses and Billy Goats last year, it's the Nationals who are constantly reminded of their three first-round ousters in the past five seasons.
Having staved off elimination at Wrigley Field on Wednesday, the Nationals were thrilled to be boarding a flight home to play Thursday's Game 5 in front of their home fans.
"Nothing makes a difference except what happens [Thursday]," Zimmerman said. "We've beaten this horse to the ground. If you want to say experience helps or hurts, then you can say whatever you want. We've got to show up and play a good game [Thursday]. If we don't, we'll lose, and if we do we'll play well."
As for the Cubs, they won Games 6 and 7 of the World Series on the road last fall, so being away from their friendly confines at home won't faze them.
"It's one game and you go home," Rizzo said. "Since I've been here, we're 4-0 in those games. Backs against the wall. You've got to go to their place and do it. Elimination game. Anything can happen. You have to roll with it, and hopefully we're on the winning side."
Things to know about this game
• This will mark the second time the Cubs have played a winner-take-all in the NLDS, having beaten the Braves in 2003. The Nationals have played a Game 5 in this round twice before, losing to the Dodgers last season and the Cardinals in '12.
• Rizzo went 0-for-3 with a walk in Game 4, ending his nine-game postseason hitting streak. It also brought his franchise-record five-game postseason RBI streak to a close.
• Of the Nationals' 12 runs scored in the series, nine came during the eighth inning of their two victories. All nine of those runs have come on home runs (Bryce Harper, Zimmerman and Michael A. Taylor).
Mark Feinsand, an executive reporter, originally joined MLB.com as a reporter in 2001.