For five innings, a crowd of 43,898 - more than 90 percent clad in red - became believers. Stephen Strasburg was on the mound, posting nothing but zeros, and those in attendance were on their feet every time he got to two strikes, fully buying into the notion that things would be different this time.
And then came the top of the sixth, with a couple of hits and a couple of misplays, and suddenly all the energy inside Nationals Park had transformed from unbridled enthusiasm to the kind of pit-in-your-stomach dread that only comes from those who have seen this happen before and have now convinced themselves it’s destined to happen again.
The Nationals, to be sure, have plenty of baseball yet to play in 2017. They trail the Cubs by a game in the best-of-five National League Division Series, which they can still capture if they win three of the next four. But make no mistake, tonight’s 3-0 loss puts the Nats in a most unwelcome position. They’ve squandered a gem from Strasburg, they won’t have Max Scherzer on the mound until Game 3 at Wrigley Field and now they’re going to ask Gio Gonzalez to save them from the brink in Game 2 late Saturday afternoon.
The reasons for tonight’s Game 1 loss felt familiar. The Nationals got very good work from their starter, but they needed him to be perfect to overcome a complete lack of offense and just enough less-than-perfect play in the field at critical moments.
Strasburg wasn’t the problem; he allowed two runs (none earned) and struck out 10 during seven electric innings. The problem was Kyle Hendricks, who allowed a first-inning single to Bryce Harper, a second-inning single to Michael A. Taylor and then nothing else except for free passes until he departed after the seventh.
And the problem was that little hiccup in the top of the sixth, when Anthony Rendon’s fielding error and Harper’s decision to attempt a throw to the plate on a play with little chance of success helped contribute to the Cubs’ two-run rally.
Chicago would tack on an insurance run in the eighth off Ryan Madson, who surrendered a pair of opposite-field doubles to left-handed batters, but that only made an already imposing deficit look even more insurmountable.
One run would’ve felt like a major accomplishment for the Nationals tonight against Hendricks and company. Those two early singles were all they amassed in the game. They did draw three walks, get hit by a pitch and reach on an error, but they never could string together anything of substance.
Indeed, the Nationals only had two at-bats the entire game with a runner in scoring position. One came with Daniel Murphy at the plate with two outs in the first (he lined out sharply to first base). One came with Strasburg at the plate with two outs in the second (he grounded out to first on a checked swing).
It’s tough to win a postseason game like that, something the Nationals and their fans have certainly learned during their three previous NLDS appearances (all resulting in series losses).
This was only the third primetime postseason game in Nationals Park’s brief history - the previous two came in Game 5s the home club lost in crushing fashion - and like those earlier ones, there was some extra juice in the crowd, which stood and roared before things even got underway and sustained it throughout the evening.
Strasburg, of course, gave the assembled masses plenty of reason to stand and roar, consistently getting ahead in the count, then getting to two strikes, then putting away Chicago’s batters with a deadly trifecta of pitches.
Four batters into his outing, Strasburg already had three strikeouts, each one concluding on a different pitch. He got Kris Bryant swinging at a curveball and Anthony Rizzo swinging at a changeup to end the top of the first, then opened the top of the second catching Willson Contreras looking at a 98 mph fastball.
Strasburg was in control from the get-go, his lone blemish for five innings a walk of Addison Russell. He had eight strikeouts through 4 1/3 innings, setting a new franchise record even at that early juncture. And at one point he had Bryant, Rizzo and Contreras utterly flummoxed.
But the Nationals lineup hadn’t been able to muster up much of anything against Hendricks, and so the game remained scoreless as Strasburg took the mound for the top of the sixth, still having yet to surrender a hit.
Then came the kind of rally that doesn’t look like much on Aug. 6 but proves critical on Oct. 6. It began when Rendon couldn’t cleanly handle Javier Báez’s bouncer down the third base line (a ball that looked it could’ve been called either fair or foul). Rendon’s first error since July 22 set the stage.
Two batters later, Bryant stepped to the plate with Baez on second and two out, the Cubs’ first true scoring opportunity of the night. And the 2016 NL MVP, despite his earlier poor swings against Strasburg, this time lined an 0-2 fastball to right-center for his team’s first hit of the game. Báez scored easily from second, but Harper’s ill-advised attempt to throw him out resulted in an overthrown cutoff man, allowing Bryant to take second and put himself into scoring position.
That proved costly, because Bryant now was able to score on Rizzo’s base hit to right, on a sinking liner that Harper couldn’t quite catch via diving attempt (his first such attempt like that since he injured his left knee nearly two months ago).
Just like that, the Cubs had a 2-0 lead. Both runs were unearned, but they counted all the same. And they left what had been an amped-up crowd considerably less enthusiastic, with 43,898 fans perhaps sensing they had witnessed games very much like this in previous Octobers.