Rendon error opens door for Cubs in Game 1 victory

WASHINGTON — Stephen Strasburg was unhittable through five innings Friday night. And then a usually sure-handed third baseman made an error that opened a door for the opportunistic Cubs.

Anthony Rendon, an “elite” infielder, in the words of second  baseman and Cubs killer Daniel Murphy, kind of killed the Nats when he made an error on Javy Baez’s chopper down the line to open a two-run sixth — an inning that may live in infamy in the Nationals’ expanding history of postseason swings and misses.

The Cubs went from being dominated to being well-positioned with a 1-0 lead in the National League Division Series.

“Stras threw a great game,” said Nationals manager Dusty Baker, whose postseaon record fell to 21-30. “Anthony, never seen him do that. And it led to a two-out hit, and they had three two-strike, two-out hits. They got clutch hits, and the team that gets the most two-out RBI hits usually wins in the playoffs.”

Stephen Strasburg throws against the Cubs in the first inning of Game 1 of baseball's National League Division Series, at Nationals Park, Friday, Oct. 6, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) ORG XMIT: NAT222

As does the team that makes the fewest mistakes. Rendon, who lost control of the ball as he gathered it in to make a throw, had no excuses.

“I thought I had it, went to reach for it, and the ball was on the ground,” he said. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

Both catcher Matt Wieters and Rendon agreed with third-base umpire Laz Diaz’s call that the ball was fair, clearing Diaz of a Don Denkinger kind of night.

“It’s definitely tough,” said Rendon, who hadn’t made an error since July 22. “It’s part of the game. It’s an error. It’s like when you have a car accident, it’s not a ‘car purpose.’ It’s a mistake. We’re human, and it’s tough because Stras was pitching his tail off.”

The Nats and Strasburg were still in position to pick up Rendon, Wieters said. But after a sacrifice bunt by Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks and Ben Zobrist’s fly out, Kris Bryant singled to right and then scored from second on Anthony Rizzo’s single in front of right fielder Bryce Harper.

Strasburg had the arsenal to get past it — he finished with a postseason franchise-record 10 strikeouts in seven innings — but he couldn’t get past Bryant and Rizzo in the clutch.

And just like that, the Nats were in a 2-0 hole.

“We took advantage of a mistake,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “You have to capitalize on mistakes when pitchers are on top of their game.”

Who knows how Strasburg would have fared with a clean start in the sixth. The way he was cruising with three outstanding pitches, he likely would have retired Hendricks and Zobrist and taken a no-hitter into the seventh. He threw 60 of 81 pitches for strikes.

“Some of the best stuff I’ve ever seen,” Rizzo said.

Rizzo produced the Cubs’ third run when he doubled against right-hander Ryan Madson with Jon Jay at second. With first base open and two out, Baker opted to pitch to to Rizzo with Willson Contreras on deck, a choice that subjected him to second guessing.

“I mean, it’s kind of a moot point when you don’t score,” Baker said.

The Nats will turn to lefty Gio Gonzalez, the former White Sox first-round draft pick, in Game 2 on Saturday. Though they’re favored by most to advance past the Cubs, their postseason past quickly became a talking point after this loss.

“We don’t care about the past,” Rendon said, trying to shrug it off. “That’s 2016, 2015, 2014. What year is it this year?”

It’s 2017.

“There you go.”

“Yeah, we still have to win three,” Wieters said. “Somehow we have to win three. It’s harder now than it would have been had we won this game, but whoever wins three before the other team does will win the series.”

Follow me on Twitter @CST_soxvan.

Email: dvanschouwen@suntimes.com

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