In the first five innings, the Cubs mustered zero runs on no hits. They had one baserunner - a walk to Addison Russell in the second - to show for 16 at-bats.
Strasburg racked up eight strikeouts to set a new franchise postseason single-game record. He finished with 10 strikeouts.
But Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks matched Strasburg, surrendering just two early base hits but no runs through seven innings, as Chicago shut out the Nationals 3-0.
The trouble started in the top of the sixth for Strasburg thanks to rare fielding error by Anthony Rendon, his first since July 22 against Arizona. Javier Báez reached when Rendon bobbled a grounder near the bag at third base. Hendricks moved Báez to second with a sacrifice bunt.
After Ben Zobrist flew out to center field, Kris Bryant laced a single to right-center field scoring Jay. The Cubs led 1-0. Bryant went to second base when right fielder Bryce Harper overthrew the cutoff man.
“Just a good piece of hitting on their part,” Strasburg said. “I think it was just one pitch to Bryant. I didn’t even need to throw that good of a pitch with two strikes. It happens. I was trying to go as hard as I can as long as I can.”
Strasburg said he was looking to elevate the pitch to Bryant. Catcher Matt Wieters explained the strategy against Bryant in that critical at-bat.
“We’d been in twice with two pitches, so just kind of wanted to get his eyes changed so maybe thinking about doing something after that,” Wieters said. “If I could take it back, I would. But we can’t. We’ll adjust and go from there.”
Anthony Rizzo followed with an RBI single and suddenly the Cubs had their first two hits off of Strasburg and a 2-0 lead. The Cubs added an insurance run off of Ryan Madson in the eighth to complete the scoring.
Even with the hard-luck loss, Strasburg was close to the best he has been all season. Wieters believes those first five innings rank up there.
“Yeah, maybe the best he’s been all year, which is saying a lot because he’s been really good all year,” Wieters said. “In a big game like that, for him to come out and throw the ball like he did, it speaks a lot for what his mentality is out there.”
Strasburg allowed no earned runs in those seven innings, with just three hits and one walk, and struck out 10 on just 81 pitches.
According to BaseballReference.com, Padres left-hander Sterling Hitchcock was the only other pitcher to strike out at least 10 batters in 81 or less pitches in a postseason game. Hitchcock did it in the 1998 NLDS against the Astros.
“(Strasburg) was commanding all his pitches, had the electric fastball working pretty much all night,” said second baseman Daniel Murphy. “Could go to the changeup and had the curveball working, both the putaway curveball and the get-ahead-in-the-count or get-back-in-the-count (pitch) when he got behind. Stras threw the ball great, gave us a chance. I thought the entire staff did a great job tonight.”
“Strasburg was outstanding,” said Nats manager Dusty Baker. “He did everything he could. But you know, they got some clutch (hits with) two strikes.
“He was doing all he could. You know, we just couldn’t muster up too much offense tonight.”
First baseman Ryan Zimmerman agreed that Strasburg was very good, but in the end, Hendricks was just a little bit better.
“That’s playoff baseball,” Zimmerman said. “Both pitchers threw great tonight. Stras threw the heck out of the ball. That was fun to watch. Their guy also threw the ball well.”
So the Nats now must focus on Game 2 on Saturday with left-hander Gio Gonzalez getting the call. With no other choice, Strasburg said they have to look ahead.
“Yeah, I think we just have to keep playing,” Strasburg said. “If this was opening day and we lost the first one, I don’t think we’d really be panicking too much. So there’s no reason to do it now. We just got to stick together and show up ready to play tomorrow.”