CHICAGO - The Nationals knew the final leg of their 10-game road trip through the Midwest was going to be the toughest, but they might not have known just how tough.
The blistering-hot Cubs have taken down every opponent they've faced so far in 2016, and now they're adding the Nats to their checklist of conquests.
Today's 8-6 thumping at Wrigley Field was merely the latest outcome to date. Behind four home runs off struggling ace Max Scherzer, the Cubs cruised to another victory, improving to 22-6, the best record to open a season by any major league club since the 2003 Yankees.
And as has been the case in so many of their games through the season's first month-plus, the Cubs won in overwhelming fashion. (They led 8-2 in the eighth before the Nats rallied to make it a competitive game again.) Chicago now boasts a run differential of +97, far and away the highest mark in the majors right now.
The Nationals, who opened this road trip by sweeping the Cardinals and then coming within two outs of sweeping the Royals, have been overmatched through the first half of this four-game weekend set. Plenty of credit must go to Chicago, but Dusty Baker's club hasn't exactly acquitted itself well so far.
After a sloppy game in the field and an underwhelming showing at the plate during last night's 5-2 loss, Baker was hoping for a better performance this afternoon. He got it for maybe 1 1/2 innings, after which his team led 2-0 behind Anthony Rendon's solo homer and Scherzer's RBI single.
It was entirely a downhill affair after that. Scherzer was blasted by the Cubs lineup for seven runs in five innings, all of them scoring on the four homers he surrendered on a warm afternoon on the North Side conducive to long fly balls.
Tommy La Stella got Scherzer first with a two-run homer in the bottom of the second. Anthony Rizzo then connected for a controversial solo shot in the bottom of the third, with the ball appearing to hit a flag flying near the top of the right field foul pole and at that moment waving in foul territory. Umpire Clint Fagan immediately called it a fair ball despite the protestations of Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy and the Nationals dugout, but a replay review by officials in New York couldn't find conclusive evidence to overturn it.
That call proved especially significant, because it came with two outs and was instantly followed by the first of Ben Zobrist's two homers on the day. The veteran utilityman, who spurned a more lucrative offer from the Nationals over the winter to sign with the Cubs instead, also launched a three-run homer in the fifth to cap off Scherzer's disastrous afternoon.
Scherzer, who now sports a 4.60 ERA in seven starts this season, matched his career-high with four homers surrendered. The seven runs allowed were the most he has allowed since joining the Nats.
The Nationals tried to make a game of this late, with Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos driving in four combined runs on back-to-back swings in the top of the eighth, but it was too late to change the outcome of the game.
Leadoff man Ben Revere, playing in his first game since straining his right oblique muscle on opening day, went 0-for-5 but was the victim of a pair of nice plays in the field on well-struck balls.
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