Rough first inning dooms Nationals in 7-4 loss to Cubs

CHICAGO - A disastrous first inning from Edwin Jackson left the Nationals trying to climb their way out of a significant hole nearly from the get-go this afternoon at Wrigley Field. But every time they made some progress and nearly got their heads back up to ground level, the Cubs pushed them back down the hole and made them start all over again.

The end result: a 7-4 loss on a long and often frustrating afternoon at the Friendly Confines, setting up a rubber match Sunday afternoon, not only to decide the weekend series but also the season series between these two division leaders.

The Nationals and Cubs, who if the season ended today would square off in the National League Division Series, have now each won three head-to-head matchups in 2017. The winner of Sunday's game, with rookie Erick Fedde opposing veteran Jon Lester, gets to go home with some bragging rights (and possibly home-field advantage, should the two clubs somehow end up tied after 162 games).

edwin-jackson-glove-gray-sidebar.jpgJackson has been an enigmatic pitcher his entire career, fluctuating from dominant to disastrous not only from start to start but often from inning to inning. And today provided merely the latest example.

The Cubs pounced all over the right-hander in the bottom of the first, racking up five hits, capped by Alex Avila's homer into the shrubs beyond the center field fence. When the inning finally ended, Jackson had surrendered four runs and piled up 31 pitches, a poor harbinger for the rest of his afternoon.

But then the switch was flipped, and suddenly Jackson looked dominant. He proceeded to retire 13 of the next 14 batters he faced, striking out eight. His elevated pitch count (101) forced Dusty Baker to remove him after the bottom of the fifth, but under the circumstances he did the best he could to keep the game close after the ragged manner in which it began.

Which applies to Jackson's overall performance since rejoining the Nationals last month. In four starts, he has a 3.75 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 20 strikeouts and five walks in 24 innings. For a fill-in No. 5 starter, they could do a lot worse.

Jackson kept the Nationals in the game, and they managed to scrounge together three runs in five innings against John Lackey, getting Bryce Harper's solo homer in the first and then RBIs from Anthony Rendon and Matt Wieters in the fourth. But there were opportunities for more, and they did not capitalize on those.

And when they needed their bullpen to keep the deficit at one run, that beleaguered group could not cooperate. Matt Grace entered for the bottom of the sixth and promptly allowed a single to Anthony Rizzo and a two-run homer to Willson Contreras.

Now the one-run deficit was a three-run deficit. It expanded to four runs when the Cubs tacked on another run against Matt Albers in the seventh. And that left the Nationals scrambling, trying to catch up again.

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