MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Clash of titans: Can Nats slow Majors-leading Cubs?

Among highlights of upcoming series at Wrigley is Arrieta-Harper matchup

Clash of titans: Can Nats slow Majors-leading Cubs?

CHICAGO -- Sometimes everything works out just right, even the timing.

Bryce Harper is bringing the Nationals to Wrigley Field on Thursday. Jake Arrieta's Cubs are going to be there and waiting.

When the Nats roll out to smash some batting-practice fastballs over the ivy-covered walls, they'll carry the swagger that goes with a 19-8 start. The Cubs will smile politely and ride the confidence that comes with their 20-6 record and season-long history of pounding opponents.

Not only are they the only team in the Major Leagues that hasn't lost back-to-back games, but they've also outscored their opponents by 93, the most over the first 26 games of a season since Christy Mathewson's Giants dominated out of the gate in 1905.

Yes, 1905, three years before the Cubs won their last championship.

These are special times, and this four-game affair figures to be one of those special regular-season series, the kind that people will still be talking about in October, especially if the teams happen to meet in the postseason.

Among the matchups to watch:

Dusty vs. Joe

There may be managers as cool as Dusty Baker and Joe Maddon, but none who are cooler. Both are philosophical savants who work to empower their players, not manipulate them like chess pieces.

They're perfect fits for the teams they inherited, with Maddon in his second year with the Cubs while Baker still learns his way around Washington after replacing Matt Williams. Between them, they've managed 4,900 regular-season games, but neither skipper has won a World Series. Both continue the quest for that bucket-list item as their careers wind down, although who knows how long they'll manage.

Maddon, Arrieta on Cubs' success

Maddon, 62, proclaimed "60 is the new 40" when the Cubs hired him. That same math would make Baker 46, as the calendar says he's due to turn 67 next month.

Another thing Maddon said when the Cubs hired him three seasons into Theo Epstein's rebuilding process was that "the heavy lifting has already been done" for the franchise. That's true for Baker as well. He takes over a team that seemed destined for championships when a 23-year-old Stephen Strasburg led the club to a 98-win campaign in 2012, but the Nationals have yet to win a postseason series.

Baker knows all about the follies of manifest destiny, of course. He had the Cubs within five outs of their first World Series appearance since 1945 in Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series. Baker has been a lightning rod for criticism in Chicago ever since, but his return brings little novelty, as he made regular trips to Wrigley Field in his six years managing the Reds.

Harper vs. Bryant

Here's a little secret about these two polished products from Las Vegas: the Cubs' third baseman, who won the NL Rookie of the Year Award last season, is older than the reigning NL Most Valuable Player Award winner.

Harper and Bryant have been on parallel tracks since they were pre-teens, and they played together in the All-Star Game last year. There's no true rivalry here, but both play with such verve that it's a treat to see the two poster boys on the same field. They're as marketable as they are talented, and they're in a race to see who can reach the World Series first.

In terms of head-to-head performance, they essentially played to a high-level draw last season. Bryant edged Harper in batting average (.368-.261) and OPS (1.168-1.153) in the seven-game season series, but Harper outhomered Bryant, 3-2. The Cubs won four of seven.

Harper hits homer No. 10 of '16

Nats' deep rotation vs. Cubs' deep lineup

One hallmark of Chicago's start has been the balanced lineup's ability to make opponents throw a lot of pitches, frequently leading to starters' early exits. They chased the Pirates' Gerrit Cole and Juan Nicasio in the fifth inning in this week's sweep at Pittsburgh, making it nine times in 26 games that the opposing starter hasn't made it through the fifth.

No opposing starter has worked more than seven innings against the Cubs, with the average just under five innings. Consider the gauntlet dropped for Nationals' starting pitchers, who have a 2.19 ERA, only percentage points behind the Majors-leading Cubs.

Chicago will miss Strasburg, but that's not much of a relief as it will face Joe Ross, Max Scherzer, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark. Their ERAs range from Ross' 0.79 to Scherzer's 3.55.

The free-agent second basemen

Daniel Murphy was a one-man wrecking crew for much of last October, helping the Mets reach the World Series with seven homers in nine postseason games against the Dodgers and Cubs. Maddon was among those amazed.

"I've not seen anything like this, I don't think, ever," Maddon said after the Mets swept the Cubs. "I saw [Barry] Bonds in the 2002 World Series, where you did not want to throw a baseball to him as a pitcher. Right now [with Murphy], it's just incredible."

Murphy figured to cash in as a free agent, but the bigger deal went to Ben Zobrist, who contributed significantly to the Royals' victory over the Mets in the World Series. He turned down a bigger offer from the Nationals before signing a four-year, $56 million deal with the Cubs at the Winter Meetings. Murphy had to wait until Jan. 6 to get his three-year, $37.5 million deal with the Nats, likely due to his poor defense in October.

Both are off to a good start, but right now, it's advantage, Murph. His four-hit day on Wednesday moved him into the MLB lead with a .398 average. Murphy's 1.112 OPS trails only Cardinals rookie Aledmys Diaz.

Murphy's four-hit game

Jake vs. Bryce

Isn't it great when they save the best act for last?

In the series finale on Sunday afternoon, the seemingly unbeatable Arrieta gets a chance to stare down Harper, who is hitting a very productive .266 (10 homers and 26 RBIs in 27 games). Statcast™ might want to track the height of the bat flip if Harper drives a fastball onto Sheffield Avenue.

Harper owns four career hits off Arrieta in 12 at-bats, including a double, but he hasn't ever homered off the righty. They haven't faced off since Arrieta entered this 26-start stretch in which he's pitched better for longer than anyone in history (22-1 record with a 0.85 ERA and 96 hits allowed in 190 innings).

Arrieta no-hits Reds

You know Arrieta's going to be prepared for Harper, just like Harper will be prepared for Arrieta. We'll be ready, too.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.