Don’t look now, but the Cubs are one game away from pushing the Nationals out of the postseason in round one. That would be territory both teams are accustomed to seeing, even if last year it was the Dodgers giving the Nats the push and the Cubs moving forward at the Giants’ expense.
For three of the last five years the Nats took the National League East only to lose division series. In Game Three of this year’s division series they lost, 2-1, two days after they came back from the dead to win Game Two. But in Game Three a gallant pitching effort from Max Scherzer wasn’t quite enough to give them the advantage.
The net result was blowing in the crosswinds.
Anthony Rizzo, verbally demanding respect after the Nats pitched to him rather than put him on to face Cub catcher Willson Contreras behind him in the eighth, gave both teams a slight shock with his on-field chirping after his go-ahead RBI single, since Rizzo is normally prone to keeping emotions like that to himself, or behind closed doors.
But you couldn’t blame him. Nats manager Dusty Baker decided not only not to put Rizzo on, he played the percentages and brought in lefthander Oliver Perez, once a maligned starter who remade himself into a respectable reliever, to face the Cub first baseman.
Perez got just what he wanted. He jammed Rizzo perfectly. But Rizzo fisted an exhausted-looking floater to shallow left. Then the ball was hugged by a few crosswinds above as three onrushing, converging Nats—Michael Taylor on his horse from center field, Trea Turner ambling out from shortstop, and Jayson Werth hustling in from left—were helpless to stop it from hitting the grass. Or, to keep hustling pinch runner Leonys Martin from scoring the second and final Cub run.
On camera it looked like Taylor might have had a play if he kept running full and didn’t reach for his brakes. It also looked like Rizzo screaming “Respect me! You respect me!” After the game, Baker shrugged it off. “Nah, I don’t care, I’d have screamed, too,” the skipper deadpanned. Him and every human in Wrigley Field.
“We’ve got to attack,” Rizzo said after the game. “We’ve got to be in attack mode. There’s no relaxing just because we’re up in the series.”
After Bryce Harper put the Nats right back into a Game Two in which they trailed 3-0 early with a mammoth two-run homer, and Ryan Zimmerman put the Nats ahead to stay with a three-run shot a walk and a base hit later, the Cubs knew they had to get into that mode even with the set tied at a game apiece.
Scherzer knew he and his had to do likewise no matter how his barking right hamstring felt. After spending a week plus wondering whether any pitch he threw full power his next time out would blow the ham that compelled the Nats to let him wait until Game Three, even knowing the risk of going in with a series handicap, Scherzer took a no-hitter into the seventh inning.
He struck out seven in those six and a third and made his ham behave until Ben Zobrist broke up the no-no and ended Scherzer’s afternoon with a one-out double. With Kyle Schwarber due up, Baker took no chances—knowing Schwarber’s futility against lefthanded pitching this season, Baker went to lefthander Sammy Solis.
Then the Cubs pulled Schwarber for pinch hitter Albert Almora, Jr., whose average against lefthanders on the season was .342 but who hadn’t yet had a hit in any postseason series he’d played. And he singled home Zobrist on a hanging changeup to tie the game at one. “When I got my chance,” said Almora, “I did it for the whole team, but mostly for Quintana and Schwarber.”
That was an inning after Cubs manager Joe Maddon pulled his so-far-effective starter Jose Quintana in favour of righthanded reliever Pedro Strop, with Ryan Zimmerman checking in at the plate for the Nats, after Daniel Murphy’s drive down the left field line was bobbled by Schwarber in left to give Murphy free passage to third.
Zimmerman drove one the opposite way that bounced off the tired ivy leaves on the Wrigley Field wall and the Nats had a 1-0 lead. Which lasted all of a blink when you looked back upon it the day after.
Maddon and Baker left themselves open to the second guessers but their players had no complaints. “When they made that decision,” Scherzer said of the move to bring in Solis, “I wasn’t going to override anybody. These are pressure-packed situations. They’ve done their homework and they’ve done their job to come up with the best scenario in that situation. I understand it.”
Just as players understand not every move is going to work in their favour. Just as they understand the move unmade can also bite you where it hurts the most. But they also understand that there come times where everything seems to go wrong but you still come out smelling sweet, as the Cubs did in Game Three despite four errors.
The key blows in the series also don’t quite mask one jarring reality: this pair of teams who can hit the living daylights out of it haven’t been hitting well overall. The Cubs are hitting .179 as a team in this set; the Nats, .121.
A lot of the reason is their pitching overall—both teams have a 2.08 series ERA. A point driven home firmly when Wade Davis closed it out spotlessly for the Cubs Monday, after Carl Edwards, Jr.—who’d surrendered Harper’s ICBM in Game Two—pitched an equally spotless eighth.
The Cubs shook off some mid-season shudders to regroup and take the NL Central this year. Once the Mets broke under the weight of injuries and administrative laxities, it was child’s play for the Nats to run away with the East.
The Nats send Tanner Roark—he of the 13-11/4.67 regular season ERA—out to challenge Jake Arrieta, whose 3.53 season’s ERA doesn’t quite erase his propensity for stepping up big enough just when it matters more than enough. Facing free agency after this postseason ends, whenever it ends for the Cubs, Arrieta is probably hungrier than a deprived shark to step up big after not having pitched for two weeks thanks to his own barking ham.
“If it’s my last time in this uniform,” said Arrieta, whose career turned around completely when he came to the Cubs in a July 2013 swap with the Orioles, “I’m going to make the most of it. “It’s kind of sad that it could end, but, man, did I enjoy it, and I feel like I maxed out my time here.” He and the Cubs hope that time goes further this month.
Can the Nats shake off Game Three in Wrigley today and force a trip back to Washington? Can the Cubs stay in Rizzo’s attack mode just enough to send the Nats to a fourth early exit in six tries and yet more rounds of second-guessing, third-guessing, and a winter of quiet desperation?
The answers, my friends, may be blowing in the crosswinds.