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Pickoff clinches win over Nationals as Cubs come up big again vs. big foes

WASHINGTON – Playoff atmosphere, big games against big opponents, feel of October.

Whatever.

There’s no such thing as a playoff atmosphere in June unless you’re talking about the NBA or the Blackhawks.

But if any Cub this century had a right to think World Series in a midseason game, it was catcher David Ross on Thursday night in Washington, when he picked off Clint Robinson at first base in the ninth to end the game and preserve the Cubs’ 2-1 victory over the Nationals.

Ross was behind the plate for the Red Sox in Game 4 of the 2013 World Series when pitcher Koji Uehara picked off the Cardinals’ Kolten Wong at first to end that game on the way to a Red Sox championship.

“That’s what it reminded me of,” Ross said. “You never see somebody get picked off first base to end the game.”

The last time a catcher did it was 2009, when Atlanta’s Brian McCann caught Nyjer Morgan – of the Nationals.

Ross remembers the Uehara-Wong play being “shocking.”

WATCH THE PLAY

“And the same with this,” he said. “I wasn’t looking for that out until Rizzo [signaled for the play]. I told him being that aware won the game for us.”

That kind of awareness. That kind of re-enacting playoff-like baseball.

Why does it always seem to happen for these new-look Cubs against the top teams they play? In four games against the National League East-leading Nationals in 11 days, the Cubs have won twice – both by one run – with neither team scoring more than three in a game.

The Cubs also split two well-played games against defending American League champ Kansas City in that stretch.

In fact, in the last five weeks, the Cubs swept the stud-pitching Mets won a series against surging Pittsburgh and won a series on the road against a rebuilt San Diego team.

On the other hand, they’ve lost series against middling to bad clubs in Arizona, Miami and Milwaukee (twice) in that span.

“That’s not been lost on me,” Maddon said after back-to-back losses in Miami this week. “We have to do better, absolutely. I don’t want to be that team that plays to the level of competition. We’ve got to bring our game every night. If it’s happening it’s not intentional.”

Maddon had good things to say about the Marlins’ talent, just like he talked up the Brewers a few weeks ago. But the difference has shown up repeatedly.

“I think it’s an understanding we have that we know who our opposition is and we know what they’re capable of bringing to the table, so that definitely will elevate our game,” said Thursday’s starter, Jake Arrieta (5-4), who struck out eight and walked none over an impressive six innings.

“There will be times – and I think there have been times – where we’ve come out a little lackadaisical.”

Like the series finale in Arizona a couple weeks ago that cost the chance to win that series, or Wednesday’s series finale in Miami.

Sometimes that’s a sign of a young team.

“But those things have been tightened up,” Arrieta said. “And especially when you play teams like this, and going to Detroit [next], these kind of teams, you have to be on top of your game.”

Rizzo, an All-Star hitter who has been the stabilizing force in the lineup all season, said he doesn’t think it’s a matter of bringing more or less energy for different opponents. He’s not even so sure the Cubs had anything all that extra for the Nationals in Thursday’s rain-delayed opener of a four-game series.

“I messed up on a bunt play,” he said. “We let a ball get by [right-fielder Junior Lake] in the outfield. We tried to stab ourselves in the foot today, and we overcame it.

“We’ve really just got to take care of the ball and the routine plays and manufacture better getting runs, and we’ll be on our way.

“But we know we’re good.”

On this night, the Cubs’ pitching was especially good in traffic. Ross was especially good at ending innings with his arm – throwing out three base runners in the game. “That’s something I take a lot of pride in,” he said. “It’s fun to throw guys out when they try to steal.”

And somehow the Cubs made two first-inning runs against Gio Gonzalez – on Lake’s bases-loaded walk and a double-play grounder by Starlin Castro – stand up to beat the team many consider the National League favorite.

The game-ending play even caught the manager by surprise.

“I had no clue. Like in many occasions I have no clue,” manager Joe Maddon said. “It was all them. Spectacular.

“You give the freedom to the player to be a baseball player,” he said. “I don’t want to be that control freak that has to control every play that’s put on, on a baseball field. Then if you do that, you’re players don’t play.

“I loved [the play]. Absolutely loved it. And of course it worked. But I’m telling you, honestly, if it did not work I would not have been upset.”

Rizzo said it’s a play he’s “always looking for.”

But with 110 games left this season, they’re all looking for a lot more. And 52 games in, most believe they should have done a lot more.

Even on this night.

“We had so many opportunities to make that a more civil game but we chose not to,” Maddon said, of several missed scoring opportunities. “We played fine today, but we have to start hitting the ball more consistently, We have to score more points. We have to be able to advantage of mistakes and tack on runs.”

Maybe if they can schedule a few more first-place teams (not necessarily the Cardinals), they’ll find more wins, if not more runs.

“We’re a good team. I think that’s the main thing,” Ross said of the Cubs’ ability to elevate against better teams. “I feel like we’ve lost some games but we’ve beat ourselves more than we’ve really gotten beat. …

“But we’re in every game. And we’ve gotten better at those small mistakes, and we’re doing a lot better.

“We’re going to hit and run the bases great and put pressure on defenses. And we can pitch with anybody.”