Nationals lament close plays they didn't make in latest loss

CHICAGO - There was the slicing soft liner by Ryan Kalish that just barely got past a lunging Danny Espinosa and brought home two runs to give the Cubs a temporary lead over the Nationals in the bottom of the sixth.

Then there was the double down the left field line by Anthony Rizzo that narrowly landed in fair territory and then bounced into the stands, putting the Cubs into prime position to break a tie game in the bottom of the seventh.

And of course there was the ball Addison Russell popped up down the right field line moments later, glancing off the glove of Bryce Harper, who had to slam on the brakes lest he go full-speed into the thinly padded wall that sits perhaps 18 inches from the foul line.

That last close call brought home the two runs that gave the Cubs the lead for good in what would become a wild, 8-5 victory before a delirious Wrigley Field crowd of 40,471 that can't believe how their beloved losers of the last century-plus are currently playing like one of the greatest ballclubs of all-time.

The Nationals can't believe it, either.

"It seems like they're getting everything they need over there," manager Dusty Baker said, "and everything that they want."

"Everything is just falling the Cubs' way right now," center fielder Ben Revere said. "That's baseball. What can you do?"

"Special talent," Harper said. "They've got a great team. Sometimes you just have to tip your cap to a team that plays really well."

The Cubs are playing more than "really well" right now. They're playing as well as any team has ever played to this still early juncture of the season. At 23-6, they own the best 29-game record by a National League club since the 1977 Dodgers.

And on top of that, they're catching breaks to boot. The three key moments of today's game all could be considered 50/50 plays, left to the whims of the baseball gods to determine. And all three went Chicago's way.

Espinosa-Dive-Chicago-Sidebar.jpgFirst, Kalish's two-run slicing liner past Espinosa. The little-used bench player was 1-for-4 when he stepped to the plate to pinch-hit with the Nationals leading 4-3 in the bottom of the sixth. Reliever Sammy Solis got Kalish to hit the ball softly to the opposite side of the infield, but it kept slicing away from Espinosa, who couldn't quite catch up to it in time to prevent two runs from scoring.

"They got a big jam shot," Baker said. "Everything was just out of our reach."

Second, Rizzo's opposite-field double off Solis in the bottom of the seventh. It was another lazy ball that fell to the ground just between a charging Jayson Werth and the foul line, then bounced up into the stands. From a guy who had been 3-for-27 against left-handers this season.

"Boy, that ball stayed in the park, too," Baker said. "I mean, right down the line. How close? I couldn't really tell down in the corner, but it had to hit right on that line down there."

Third, the real killer: Russell's ball down the right field line that grazed Harper's glove and then landed on the foul line in the bottom of the seventh. The Nationals challenged the initial ruling of a fair ball, but officials in New York confirmed it was a fair ball by the slimmest of margins.

Harper may take criticism in some corners for his refusal to risk his body in an attempt to make the catch, but the reigning league MVP (who suffered significant injuries earlier in his career due to reckless play in the outfield) wasn't about to apologize for it.

"I'm not going to run into the wall, plain and simple," Harper said. "Got as close as I could and put my glove out and (the ball) nicked off it. Things happen. I'm not going to do it again - run into a wall - and I'm not playing for another year and not feeling healthy. I'd rather be in the lineup every day. That's just not going to happen."

Harper's teammates and coaches found no fault with his decision.

"Nothing you can do right there," Revere said. "Nothing you can do. Happened to me last year: I was with Philly, and a guy got a triple and an RBI. It's kind of just like, what can you do? There's nothing."

"There's nothing, outside of running into that wall and hurting yourself," Baker said. "They've got padding out there, but that pad doesn't help. Anybody that's ever run into that wall ..."

The 66-year-old manager trailed off. He has plenty of experience playing outfield in this timeless ballpark himself. And he has seen and managed the Cubs before. He's never seen them play like this. And he - and his team - can't help but feel helpless by what has taken place here over the last three days, and specifically this day.

"That was tough," Baker said. "We battled big-time. They battled big-time and came out on top."

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