- The Washington Times - Friday, October 6, 2017

The Washington Nationals jogged across a red carpet around 7 p.m. Friday night listening to approval from fans and expecting this time to be different. When analyzed, they had few flaws, enviable balance and multiple reasons to argue that 2017 would not be like the last three playoffs appearances, which were dismal flameouts that had turned hope into trepidation.

But, it’s here, again, that sigh-inducing, stomach-crumpling feeling. Losing Game 1 of the National League Division Series 3-0 to the Chicago Cubs has put them in a dire spot. Yes, one loss has produced an enormous problem. The winner of Game 1 in these best-of-five series wins the series 72 percent of the time. Doubling the mathematical gut-punch is the fact Washington has pushed ace Max Scherzer back to the third game of the series Monday in Chicago. Gio Gonzalez — who had a 6.23 ERA in the playoffs last year — will be on the mound Saturday night pitching just to make the series 1-1.

The night was again filled with reminders of almosts that had negatively defined past postseasons. A rare error by Anthony Rendon, a trapped ball in right, an extra base allowed on a close play, an opposite-field single.

Also pervasive was the Nationals’ inability to produce hits. They finished with just two in a game ruled by starting pitching, pointing to the offense as rendering the other close plays moot. They didn’t score, so how could they expect to win?

The issues drowned out Stephen Strasburg’s dominant night. He carried a no-hitter through the first five innings and dealt with only two worrisome moments in that time. The first came when he walked Addison Russell in the second inning, which brought Strasburg’s nemesis, Jason Heyward, to the plate. Heyward entered the game hitting .405 against Strasburg in a large sample of 37 at bats. Most of that work was done when each were different versions of themselves, back when Heyward was a potent offensive player in Atlanta and Strasburg was not quite the force he became this season. Heyward flew out to right.

The first hard contact of the night for the Cubs came in the bottom of the fourth inning, when catcher and cleanup hitter Wilson Contreras hit a 2-0 pitch up the middle. Daniel Murphy, not known for his defensive magic, was in a prime position to field Contreras’ steaming ground ball. He snagged it with his glove, threw to first, then jogged to the dugout like it was no thing.

It was time to wonder at the end of the fifth. Strasburg had set a postseason single-game franchise record for strikeouts by then. He used curveballs, fastballs and changeups to storm through the Cubs‘ order for 15 outs. He had not allowed a hit and the lone baserunner was a result of the walk to Russell. Maybe history was coming. Then, Rendon made a mistake.

The bottom of the sixth opened with a line-hugging bounder to third. Rendon was pulled in a bit because Cubs second baseman Javier Baez was more a threat based in speed than power. When Rendon fielded the ball with his left hand across his body, third base umpire Laz Diaz signalled the ball fair. It jostled its way out of Rendon’s glove. Baez was safe without a throw. The play was ruled an error on a third baseman who was rated the best defensive player in the league at his position in 2017 by granular statistical website Fangraphs.

“Thought I had it, went to go reach for it, and it was on the ground,” Rendon said.

“Anthony, we’ve never seen him do that,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker said.

Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks bunted Baez to second. Ben Zobrist flew out to center. Two outs. The crowd chanted since Strasburg was on the cusp of wiping away Rendon’s botched play and continuing forward with his dominance. The next hitter, Kris Bryant, was in an 0-2 hole. Fans in Nationals Park, overwhelmingly filled with pro-Nationals on-lookers despite the Cubs‘ sterling ability to travel their fan base to opposing parks, stood.

The effort was meaningless. The momentum, Strasburg’s fantastic repertoire, Washington’s chance to take the first game, it was all wiped away by Bryant’s bubble-bursting single to right field. Baez scored. Strasburg had gone from invincible to behind after the Cubs‘ first base hit of the day.

Anthony Rizzo delivered a second hit. Bryant scored because he had taken second on a close play after his hit that was so tight the Nationals challenged the call. The Cubs led, 2-0. It would be enough.

Strasburg had used power to move through his innings. Hendricks, a known nibbler who changes speed and veers his not-so-fast fastball around the edges of the plate, moved along with guile. The first inning delivered a chance when Bryce Harper reached second base. Murphy scratched his way into the box after Rendon made an out. He hit a liner to Rizzo at first. Murphy always chases hard contact and loft when he swings. He achieved one of those things in that at-bat, a rate of success that caused him to be irritated afterward.

“Hit that ball on the button,” Murphy said. “Too low. Should have hit it higher.”

By the bottom of the seventh, Hendricks had allowed fewer hits than Strasburg. He held a 2-0 lead, though Strasburg had not allowed an earned run. Baker took his first swipe at countering Hendricks when he sent Howie Kendrick to the plate to hit for Strasburg. Kendrick struck out.

The Cubs picked up a third run in the eighth inning against Ryan Madson. Rizzo struck again. He doubled to left field to drive in pinch-hitter Jon Jay, who had also doubled to left, though the hits were distinctly different. Rizzo hit the ball hard. Jay led the inning off with a looping fly ball that landed just inside of the foul line. Regardless, he was on and scored with two outs.

“I think I just got a little fastball happy,” Madson said. “But, I was beating him with it.”

Starting pitchers had been bludgeoned across the league during the first week of the playoffs. Not so Friday. Hendricks allowed two hits, no runs and struck out six and walked three. Strasburg’s line would typically be something joyous for fans: seven innings, three hits, no earned runs, one walk, 10 strikeouts. Instead, it was another so-close night that leaves the Nationals in a troubling spot.

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