- The Washington Times - Monday, June 26, 2017

Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer walked into Washington’s clubhouse and observed the amount of additional media on hand.

“The Cubs must be in town,” he said as he walked by.

Scherzer was right, but of course there was going to be extra attention when the defending World Series champions make a stop to Nationals Park in the first of a four-game series. While the Cubs have struggled this season, Monday was still a matchup of two of the league’s best teams.

And it was the Cubs who prevailed with a 5-4 win over the Nationals. Washington came up short despite a 4-run rally in the bottom of the ninth.

Monday started as a pitching battle, but finished as so much more.

The Nationals (45-31) dug deep for a comeback they almost achieved. Cubs closer Wade Davis almost blew a 5-0 lead.

Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy scored after catcher Matt Wieters had an RBI single. Pinch hitter Stephen Drew then had a 2 RBI double to drive home Wieters and Michael A. Taylor, cutting the Cubs lead 5-3.

Davis eventually loaded the bases and Wilmer Difo scored on a wild pitch.

It was up to first baseman Ryan Zimmerman to drive in the runs home with two outs, but struck out.

“As long as you got outs you got a chance,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. “That’s how I look at it. Especially with the offense that we have. You don’t know when and who they are going to erupt against and the fact that we had action on winning that game, we were a hit away from winning that game and our guys didn’t quit and it was a great comeback and you never know in the eight which run is going to beat ya and it was tough to take, especially when we had a chance to come back and a chance to come back all the way.”

The Nationals were put in a 5-0 hole, due largely to the same reoccurring issue — their bullpen.

In the ninth, Nationals reliever Matt Grace gave up three hits, two runs and committed an error to give the Cubs a 4-0 lead.

Matt Albers replaced him and allowed another run — one that proved to be costly.

The Nationals also struggled to get out of a jam in the eighth inning. After failing to convert a double play in which both runners were safe, Cubs outfielder Albert Almora bunted to bring home Baez, who easily stole third on the pitch before.

Almora, strangely, finished the game 1-for-1 and was walked three times. Almora being walked, however, was situational as Maddon often has his pitcher bat eighth.

But the Nationals converted a double play to get out of the eighth and prevent more damage.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon used all but one of his relievers — Carl Edwards Jr., Pedro Strop, Koji Uehara, Brian Duensing, Justin Grimm, Hector Rondon and Davis — to keep the Nationals at bay before Davis’ collapse.

The Cubs (39-37) elected to pitch to Bryce Harper, who was walked a MLB-record 13 times in four games during a series against Chicago last year. Harper went 3-for-5 and was robbed of a hit in the bottom of third inning when Cubs shortstop Javier Baez made a phenomenal diving catch.

Baez worked more magic in the bottom of the eighth, sliding near a wall in foul territory and coming down with a ball from Nationals pinch hitter Adam Lind. According to MLB research, Baez traveled 104 feet on the play.

Shortly after, Harper was at the plate with Brian Goodwin on first and chants of “Let’s Go Harper” ushered out from the Nationals‘ upper deck, trying to urge a rally with two outs. This time, Harper singled to first on a ball that bounced in Cubs second baseman Ian Happ’s hands.

“Our thing is always, when we’re down, we’re never down,” Harper said. “Just trying to not make the last out and do the things we could to put some pressure on them. Thought we had a great day swinging the bats. … It’s a great baseball team over there. They do the little things right. They play offense, they play defense, and they pitch well. It’s definitely tough, but go get ‘em tomorrow.”

Zimmerman then had a full 3-2 count and hit a ball down the third baseline — grounding out.

Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez made it through six innings, 113 pitches later. Gonzalez, who is always methodical in his approach, allowed just two hits and struck out eight batters, including fanning out Russell to end the sixth.

Gonzalez’s lone error came on the first batter of the game — giving up a home run to Cubs catcher Wilson Contreras to make the score, 1-0.

Butler, the starter for the Cubs, was also solid with allowing four hits on 64 pitches.

Gonzalez said the comeback showed the Nationals weren’t going to go quietly.

“We definitely gave fans their money’s worth,” Gonzalez said. “If you came to this game, you earned that ticket.”

The Cubs are still the world champions and reminded the Nationals, and maybe the baseball world, of it for another day. The Nationals, though, sent a message of their own.

“We gave them something to bite their nails about,” Gonzalez said.

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