There was the play down the third base line Anthony Rendon couldn’t make, resulting in his first error in 76 days. There was Bryce Harper’s ill-advised, too-high throw that allowed a runner to take second base and ultimately score minutes later. There were pitches called strikes that didn’t jibe well with batters. And there was the debatable decision not to bring in a left-hander to face Anthony Rizzo in a key, two-out spot with first base open.
The Nationals had to confront all of that tonight following their disheartening, 3-0 loss to the Cubs in Game 1 of the National League Division Series. But leave it to Dusty Baker to sum it all up with a statement that might seem obvious but could easily have been lost in the shuffle after this contest.
“I mean, it’s kind of a moot point when you don’t score,” Baker said.
Indeed, a baseball game is awfully tough to win when you’ve got a zero in the run column at the end of the night. The sport has changed plenty over the last 150-plus years, but that simple fact still holds true.
And on a night when the Nationals were trying to make a definitive statement that things will be different in their fourth postseason appearance after the previous three first-round exits, all that really mattered was the big zero next to their name that was on display for an excruciating 3 hours, 2 minutes for a crowd of 43,898 that has seen this act before.
“I don’t think we had an extra-base hit, if I’m not mistaken,” second baseman Daniel Murphy said. “It’s tough to put up runs when you’re not touching second from home plate.”
Murphy, as is usually the case, was not mistaken. The Nationals had only two hits, each of them a single, one in the first inning and one in the second inning.
They had more baserunners, seven of them in total. But only two advanced as far as second base, again one in the first inning and one in the second inning. The Nats took two at-bats all night with a man in scoring position. And one of them came with two outs and Stephen Strasburg at the plate.
It’s frustrating enough to get shut out in the playoffs. How much more frustrating is it to not only get shut out, but to barely even have chances to score a single run?
“I don’t know, that’s a good question,” Rendon said. “I think it would have been more frustrating if we had opportunities, like if we had men in scoring position. But I guess it’s just frustrating either way if you don’t score runs. If you don’t score runs, you can’t win.”
The Nationals’ best chance, if you can call it that, came in the bottom of the first. Harper had lined a one-out single to right, then advanced to second base on Rendon’s ground ball back to the pitcher. To the plate stepped Murphy, whose track record of postseason success is second to few. And the Nats cleanup man did just about everything he could, ripping a line drive toward the first base line - only to watch as Rizzo jumped up and snagged the ball to kill that rally in abrupt fashion.
“I hit that ball on the button,” Murphy said. “It was too low. I should’ve hit it higher.”
The crowd groaned when Rizzo made the catch, but at that moment there was reason to believe there would be plenty more opportunities as the night wore on. Except there weren’t. Strasburg came up to bat with two on and two out in the second but tapped a check-swing grounder to first. After that, the Nationals managed only three walks and a reached-via-error against Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs’ crafty right-hander that became the latest non-power pitcher to shut down what was one of the National League’s most productive lineups all season.
“Hendricks had something to do with it,” Baker said. “It wasn’t a matter of them being ready. It’s just a matter of, you know, he was tricking us tonight. And it seems like those kind of guys give us more trouble than guys who throw hard.”
The lack of offense, of course, was troubling and was the biggest reason for the loss. But a couple of small-but-costly mistakes in the top of the sixth also made a big difference in producing the Cubs’ first two runs and changing the complexion of the game.
It began with Rendon’s error on Javier Báez’s chopper down the third base line. The ball was right over the line, prompting some to wonder if it was fair or foul. No matter, because umpire Laz Diaz called it fair, and Rendon didn’t want to take a chance anyway. He tried to make the transfer from glove to hand and wound up dropping the ball, leading to his first error since July 22.
“It’s definitely tough,” the third baseman said. “It’s part of the game. That’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.”
A few minutes later, Harper made a mistake of his own after scooping up Kris Bryant’s two-out single to right-center. Báez was going to score easily, but Harper tried to throw to the plate anyway and in the process overthrew cutoff man Ryan Zimmerman. Strasburg, backing up the play, threw back to second base a split-second too late, and that proved costly because it left Bryant in position to score on Rizzo’s subsequent RBI single just in front of a diving Harper.
“I was just trying to come up and throw it to the cutoff man and threw it a little bit too high,” Harper said. “Stras got it, threw it to second, possibly could’ve gotten an out right there. Just didn’t happen.”
The Nationals’ last-ditch hope in the bottom of the ninth included Zimmerman striking out on Wade Davis’ pitch in the dirt, then trying to beat catcher Willson Contreras’ throw to first. That throw wound up hitting Zimmerman in the back, and plate umpire Cory Blaser immediately called him out for being in fair territory at the time.
The Nationals argued the call, but Zimmerman later admitted he was in fair territory when he shouldn’t have been, and took no issue with the decision.
Still, it was perhaps a sign of the way things went tonight that the Nats were left trying to plead their case for him to be allowed to reach first base on a play like that, given how much they struggled to get a batter there the conventional way.
“I don’t know if we were relying on it,” Zimmerman said. “It’s just one of those things: Get a runner on, you never know what happens. But by no means are we desperate where we need to get a dropped third strike to get a guy at first. It’s not that crazy yet, man.”
Maybe not. But down 1-0 in a best-of-five series, with zero runs on the board and only two hits to their name, the Nationals may find themselves in full-on desperation mode soon enough.