Nationals shut out by Cubs, 5-2, in opener of key series

CHICAGO - The opener of a marquee series between the National League's top two teams featured plenty of big names, plenty of dominant pitching performances and some highlight-reel defense.

What it didn't include was very much offense by the visitors.

The Cubs managed to pull off a 5-2 victory over the Nationals thanks to a pair of big hits by Ben Zobrist: His two-run single to right in the bottom of the fourth, then his two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth, spoiling a mostly strong performance by Joe Ross.

Ross-Throws-Gray.jpgOn a chilly, 47-degree evening that felt more like late-September than early-May, the most-hyped matchup of the season to date proved to be a compelling, tightly contested ballgame. But a Nationals lineup that exploded for 19 runs the previous two days in Kansas City was held down by the only pitching staff in the majors with a lower ERA at the start of the day.

Kyle Hendricks allowed just two hits (Michael A. Taylor's third-inning double, Bryce Harper's sixth-inning single) in six stellar innings. Cubs manager Joe Maddon entrusted the rest of the game to his bullpen, and that group complied by keeping the shutout intact until the ninth.

The Nationals' last, best chance came in the top of the eighth, when Pedro Strop plunked Danny Espinosa and walked pinch-hitter Clint Robinson in what at that point was still a 2-0 game. But Taylor (who got only one pitch in the strike zone in his at-bat) struck out, and Anthony Rendon grounded into a double play to kill the potential rally.

Jayson Werth did launch a two-run homer to the last row of the left-field bleachers with two outs in the ninth, but it was far too late for the Nationals, who trailed 5-0 at that point.

Ross was quite effective himself, but his brief hiccup in the fourth proved the difference. The Nationals defense could have helped him out some, most notably Taylor, who couldn't catch Kris Bryant's drive to the wall in center field and then watched as the ball got lost in the ivy. Though Harper did help Ross limit the damage that inning by throwing out Anthony Rizzo at third base on Zobrist's base hit.

Still, it was hard to find much fault with Ross on this night. He finished with two runs allowed in 6 2/3 innings, striking out nine along the way. His ERA, which sat at 0.79 when he took the mound, has now risen to 1.23.

Needing to keep the game close late, the Nationals bullpen and defense wilted. Ryan Zimmerman misfired on a routine rundown, keeping the bottom of the eighth alive and setting the stage for Zobrist's homer off Felipe Rivero.

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