CHICAGO - A lot happened in Game 3 of the National League Division Series. Seriously, for a 2-1 ballgame, there were enough significant moments, great plays, terrible plays and key decisions to warrant a week's worth of discussion.
We don't have that much time, of course, to discuss it all. Game 4 is coming up later this afternoon. (If you missed it, Major League Baseball announced late last night that, no matter the outcome of the other NLDS, the game will be played at 5:38 p.m. EDT in an attempt to beat the rain that is forecast for Chicago this evening.)
But there is plenty more to look back at before we look forward to today's potential elimination game for the Nationals, so let's get to the critical decisions in the seventh and eighth innings that led to this heartbreaking loss ...
I remember saying this somewhere before the series began - it might have been in one of our online video segments with Dan Kolko - that I felt the key inning of the postseason for the Nationals was going to be the seventh inning. Because that's when Dusty Baker was going to have to decide whether to try to push his starting pitcher to get three more outs or turn the game over to his bullpen.
Well, that very situation arose Monday, and it was among the most significant moments of the game. Max Scherzer entered the seventh with a no-hitter intact. He also entered it with a pitch count of 90, having said himself entering the start that he felt like he was strong enough to give the Nats 100 pitches for this game.
The Cubs had Willson Contreras (right-handed bat) and Ben Zobrist (switch-hitter) due up, with left-handers Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward after that. Both Sammy SolÃs (lefty) and Brandon Kintzler (righty) were warming up in the Nats bullpen.
Baker let Scherzer take the mound to start the inning, and the ace proceeded to strike out Contreras on a 95 mph fastball. His pitch count now stood at 96, with Zobrist (.737 OPS vs. righties, .552 OPS vs. lefties) coming up. The no-hitter was still intact, and Baker left his ace in. Two pitches later, Zobrist ripped a double to left-center, and that was that.
"Every pitch, I'm just trying to stay within myself, game plan with (catcher Matt) Wieters and just execute pitches," Scherzer said of that fateful seventh. "I was able to get ahead on Contreras, and took my chances with fastballs up in that situation and was able to execute and collect a strikeout in that situation. And then with Zobrist, I just missed with a curveball 0-0 and then went fastball away, and he did a good job putting the bat on the ball and hit in the gap."
Baker knew at that point he was going to take Scherzer out. The only question was whether to bring in Kintzler to face Schwarber, or whether to bring in SolÃs and force Joe Maddon to pinch-hit with Albert Almora Jr. He went with SolÃs, deciding the most important thing in that moment was to get Schwarber out of the game.
"We thought Max had had enough, especially coming off the injury," Baker said. "And you know, Schwarber is a dangerous man. I probably couldn't live with myself if Schwarber had hit one out of the park on you, which he's dangerous to do that."
Kintzler does have very good numbers vs. lefties, so Baker was asked whether he considered having him face Schwarber. The manager said that wasn't a consideration.
"You know, Kintzler throws that sinker, and Schwarber likes the ball away from him," Baker said. "I've seen him hit that ball in the left field seats many, many times. We thought that was the right decision."
SolÃs, of course, wound up surrendering the game-tying single to Almora on a 3-2 changeup, then another single to Jason Heyward before giving way to Kintzler, who got Addison Russell to hit into a highly unusual 8-4-3 double play to end that inning.
Kintzler remained in the game to start the bottom of the eighth, and he got himself and his team in trouble when he walked Tommy La Stella on five pitches to open that frame. Jon Jay then bunted pinch-runner Leonys Martin to second base, bringing Kris Bryant to the plate.
"I was a little out of rhythm when I went back out for the eighth inning," Kintzler said. "It took a little time to get it going. By that time, I was five, six pitches deep when Bryant got up. Got in a good rhythm right there, but the first hitter ... sometimes when you get back up and go back out, it takes some time to get it going. Just didn't work out right there. (Avoiding) leadoff walks (are) definitely rule No. 1 for a late-inning reliever."
Kintzler did strike out Bryant, a huge out, but that set up the key showdown with Anthony Rizzo, the other half of the Cubs' great offensive duo. And so Baker summoned lefty Oliver PÃ©rez to face him with the game on the line. That raised another question: Instead of bringing in PÃ©rez, why not walk Rizzo and bring in Ryan Madson to face Contreras?
"Yeah, but you hate to put extra men on base at that point in time in the game," Baker said. "We decided to pitch to - shoot, I can't even think - we decided to pitch to him (Rizzo). Like I said, you couldn't have thrown a ball in there any better than he did. So that was the game."
Indeed, PÃ©rez made a good pitch to Rizzo, jamming him and forcing the slugger to pop up weakly to shallow left-center. Who knew that ball would fall to the ground in between three defenders and prove the difference in the game?
There's so much to debate about all this, so many decisions that were made or could have been made. In the end, perhaps the toughest pill for the Nationals to swallow is this: With their season on the line, they used three relievers (SolÃs, Kintzler and PÃ©rez). Their two best relievers (Madson and Sean Doolittle) never got into the game.
Then again, had their lineup been able to score more than one run, perhaps the decisions would have already been made for Baker and the outcome would have been far different. That's a wholly different matter to discuss before Game 4.