- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 7, 2017

Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant was asked all week if, and how, Chicago’s past playoff experience could help them against the Washington Nationals in the National League Division Series. They were, after all, the defending champs, conquering the franchise’s woes from the Curse of the Billy Goat to Steve Bartman.

After the Cubs’ 3-0 win over the Nationals on Friday, Bryant said he could see the difference.

“Just in terms of the nerves inside,” Bryant said.

Actually, on second thought, the 2016 NL MVP quickly corrected himself.

“But I don’t know. I was feeling them today, too,” he added. “I think just as the playoffs go on and you play more playoff games, you can just go out there and play.”

If the Cubs were nervous, they found a way, again, to come through in big moments.

They turned an uncharacteristic error from Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon into back-to-back RBIs in the sixth inning. The Cubs went up 2-0 and broke Stephen Strasburg’s no-hitter in the process. Bryant had Chicago’s first hit, which drove home Javy Baez from second. 

On a night when Strasburg set a franchise record for postseason strikeouts — 10 in 81 pitches, no less — Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks remained calm. Hendricks is a pitcher who started Game 7 of last year’s World Series and was tasked to pitch Game 1 of the NLDS instead of Jon Lester.

“You know how well [Strasburg’s] throwing the other side,” Hendricks said. “You don’t think you’ve got to step it up. You just have to know every pitch, you have to have your focus because one pitch could be the difference in the ballgame.”

Hendricks’ focus on “one pitch” stretched across 106 pitches and seven innings. With each pitch, Hendricks kept the Nationals guessing. He mixed in changeups, sinkers and even his four-seam fastball.

But the Cubs pitcher also surprised. His velocity, which normally averages just 88.1 miles per hour, ticked up to near 90 at certain points.

Hendricks finished the night allowing only two hits — one less than Strasburg.

“This is as good as I’ve seen him,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.” … You can see his delivery, how well he repeated it, pitch after pitch after pitch. He’s such a technician mechanically.”

Hendricks’ composure complimented his stuff.

“He’s the same guy all the time, no matter, and it’s impressive,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “It’s not easy to do in this game.”

This is not the same Cubs team that came to Nationals Park in late June for a four-game series. Then, Chicago was filled with injuries, playing just above .500 baseball and chasing the Milwaukee Brewers for a division lead.

During the series, the Cubs released veteran catcher Miguel Montero after he threw his starting pitcher, Jake Arrieta, under the bus following Trea Turner’s four stolen bases in a game. It was the lowpoint of their season.

But Maddon said the June matchup gave his team confidence since they split the games, winning two each.

“I just thought the way we fought through that moment against a very good team spoke loudly and clearly about us as a group,” Maddon said Friday before Game 1.

The Cubs regrouped and went 49-25 after the All-Star break. The two teams met again in August with the Nationals winning two-of-three games in Chicago.

The playoffs, though, are different. In this year’s postseason, the Nationals are the team whose lack of postseason success is dissected from every angle.

Bryant knows the feeling.

“Last year, it was just like, ‘You have to win the whole thing or you’re a failure,’” Bryant said. “We did it. But this year, it’s no different. We want to be the last team standing.

“It’s kind of a cool spot to be with nobody really expecting us to.”

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