WASHINGTON — With just four hits, three of them singles, through the first 16 innings of their NL Division Series against the Cubs, the Nationals looked decidedly like a team ready to be swept aside.
Their pitching was good, but Chicago’s was just a little better. And though the Cubs did not resemble Murderers’ Row, they were better than the Skid Row ensemble Washington produced.
“That’s a team over there that’s not going to make mistakes,” Washington’s Bryce Harper said before Saturday night’s Game 2. “So you’ve got to hit the balls through the hole, you’ve got to hit the ball in the gap and run the bases well and do the things that you can get runs on the board.”
And if you can’t go through the holes or into the gaps, send one into the second deck in right. Harper obliged that way.
Or just over the wall in left, as Ryan Zimmerman did three batters later as Washington exploded for a five-run eighth inning to tie the series at one game apiece with a rousing 6-3 victory over the defending champion Cubs at Nationals Park.
Harper, who returned for the final five regular season games after missing 41 with a knee injury, jumpstarted the Nationals — and the hearts of their fans — with a massive, game-tying two-run homer in the eighth before Zimmerman slugged a three-run shot to left.
Game 3 is Monday at Wrigley Field, where the Cubs will send Jose Quintana (11-11) against Max Scherzer (16-6). Former Met Oliver Perez got the Game 2 win with Sean Doolittle pitching the ninth for a save.
The Nationals had managed just two singles in their Game 1 defeat Friday and the offensive anemia dragged on through seven innings Saturday as Jon Lester continued Chicago’s pitching dominance. It looked like the Cubs were prepping to end it at home. Before the first pitch was thrown or the first ball was hit first baseman Anthony Rizzo addressed what he and the Cubs already have endured.
Ryan Zimmerman spreads his arms while running the bases after blasting a three-run homer off Mike Montgomery in the eighth inning.AP
“We’ve been through probably every single scenario except sweeping a team,” Rizzo said. “We have yet to sweep a team in the playoffs.”
It seemed like a matter of time, especially with Rizzo smacking a two-run homer for the 3-1 lead the Cubs took into the eighth. But Adam Lind pinch hit a single off losing reliever Carl Edwards Jr. and one out later, Harper struck. A walk brought on mike Montgomery who surrendered a Daniel Murphy single and then the Zimmerman homer on an 0-1 changeup.
With the score tied, 1-1, and following a double by Kris Bryant leading off the fourth, Rizzo drove a 2-1 curve from Nationals’ lefty Gio Gonzalez to rightfield. The shot, just to the left of the Nationals’ bullpen, was grabbed by a fan in a Cubs’ jersey at the raining above the wall. A crew chief review ensued and 2:16 later, the call on the filed stood. Along with a 3-1 Cubs lead.
Gonzalez’s curveball has been remarkably devoid of home run results. Only one of the 21 homers he allowed this year came on a curve.
Now there are two.
Lester lasted six innings, surrendering two hits one run. He walked two, struck out two.
The Nationals had struck first this time. Anthony Rendon, who committed a costly Friday error, went the opposite way and smacked a 1-1 fastball down the line in right for a 1-0 lead.
“We’ve been through a lot of different scenarios. Not much is going to be able to hit us in the face and us just get knocked out, so we’re gonna be able to get back up and keep moving forward. We know that,” Rizzo said.
They proved it the next inning.
Wilson Contreras put an 0-1 fastball from Gonzalez up into the wind and it carried out to left tying matters at 1-1. Contreras was the Cubs’ only baserunner until Bryant’s double at the start of the fourth.
He lasted two more innings, five in all, surrendered three hits, three runs and two walks and struck out six. He exited for a pinch-hitter in the fifth when the Nationals raised a major fuss against Lester, loading the bases but coming up empty when Trea Turner chased a pitch well out of the strike zone to fan and neutralize the threat.