WASHINGTON — We had a pitching duel at Nationals Park that required some Cubs heavy hitters to break out of the fog created by Nationals magician Stephen Strasburg.
It all came down in the sixth inning, when a lazy fielding error by Nats third baseman Anthony Rendon gave Cubs lumbermen Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo a chance to bat.
“You can’t give extra outs,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said after the game.
Hear that, Nats?
Baseball is a game of repetition and deep concentration, and when Rendon casually dropped an easy grounder by leadoff batter Javy Baez, he broke the secret spell that Strasburg had been weaving through the night.
Already, Strasburg had struck out a Nationals postseason team-record eight men, and his 98 mph fastball, 90 mph changeup and knee-buckling 84 mph curveball had made Bryant and Rizzo look like fools in earlier plate appearances.
Indeed, the dubiously named “Bryzzo” combo were 0-for-4 to that point, with four swinging strikeouts. On fire they were not.
But errors haunt teams, ruin mojo. And that’s what Rendon’s did. Just for two at-bats, and that’s all it took.
Bryant stroked a single to right that drove in Baez for the game’s first run, and then he did something that also springs out of the haze of momentum-killing errors: He took second base on the cutoff throw to home. He slid into the bag head-first in a dangerous skid that nearly took him into the dirt near center field. The play was reviewed, but the umps called Bryant safe. And there was a game-breaking moment.
For next up was Rizzo, the first baseman who finished the season batting .272 with 32 home runs and 109 RBI, the latter two being career highs. He promptly drilled a single to right that scored Bryant, and the Cubs were up 2-0.
No matter that Strasburg gave up no more runs, earned or unearned. The damage was done.
“K.B. and Riz — two of the best in the game,” winning pitcher Kyle Hendricks said.
That’s what great offensive players like Bryant and Rizzo, the Nos. 2 and 3 hitters in Maddon’s lineup, do in this game of waiting and attacking at just the right time. You can strike out 50 times, pop up, hit into double plays, stumble, fall down — all of it — if you just get the big hits at the critical moments.
“Timely hitting is huge in the playoffs,” Rizzo said.
As it always is.
Rizzo also got a double to left in the eighth to drive in Jon Jay, who had led off with a double off reliever Ryan Madson. One more RBI in a game where just one was all that was needed to win.
For the Cubs to win this series, they will need Bryant and Rizzo to stay hot. Or at least they will need for the two stars to stay alert and let their expert baseball awareness and great hitting skills infect teammates with the desire to succeed at the precise moment.
The hits by the pair had to be doubly depressing to the Nationals, since they were unable to do anything to the soft-throwing Hendricks, at their home park, in front of a sellout crowd that had too many Cubs fans inside to be happy about.
“I think we don’t have a real advantage over the Cubs because, you know, they have been here the last few years,’’ Nationals manager Dusty Baker said.
Yes, the Cubs have been here, and with any luck — if they play this series right — they will play only one more game in Washington and not have to come back, finishing the job at Wrigley Field in this best-of-five series.
Bryant and Rizzo won’t be going anywhere. Sorry, Nats.
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