Monday’s series opener between the Cubs and Nationals lived up to the hype with great plays, big moments and dueling bullpen implosions in the ninth inning.
The Cubs wound up with a crazy 5-4 win when Wade Davis struck out Ryan Zimmerman in the ninth after a wild pitch pulled the Nationals to within a run and put the tying and winning runs on second and third.
“The Nationals, like St. Louis, are always good competition, and before the game everybody was kind of into it,” said Javier Baez, who made a sensational running catch of a foul ball to rob Adam Lind and a leaping catch to snare a wicked liner off Bryce Harper’s bat.
The Nationals nearly staged a comeback that would’ve put Chicago in full panic mode, only to fall just short at the end.
“It’s tough to take, especially when you had a chance to come back, and come back all the way,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker said.
A sigh of relief was heard afterwards in Joe Maddon’s office, though it might’ve been the sound you hear after a big gulp of some fine wine.
“Before you play (Max) Scherzer it’s always nice (to win),” Maddon said. “To play so well and not win that game, that would’ve been awful. That would’ve been tough.”
Now it’s time for an encore, and it’s only going to get tougher on Tuesday, when Scherzer faces Jake Arrieta in a matchup of the last two National League Cy Young winners.
“I love going up against the best,” Scherzer said.
Both pitchers have two no-hitters to their name, and each has something the other one wants.
Scherzer is in search of his first World Series ring, after falling short in the playoffs with the Tigers and Nationals. Arrieta has a ring and two World Series wins to his name, and along with another ring he’s looking for a contract in the vicinity of Scherzer’s seven-year, $210 million deal.
He’ll have to pick up the pace in the final three months to be deemed worthy of such a contract, but Arrieta has shown in the past he can be a dominant pitcher.
Scherzer, of course, has been worth every dime of his deal, and more. He currently leads the league in earned-run average (2.09), strikeouts (145) opponents batting average (.167), WHIP (0.81) and strikeouts to walks percentage (29.4 percent).
Another Cy Young is probable, depending on his second half, and he’s having a more dominant season than 2016.
Arrieta, of course, has been up-and-down, and isn’t among the league leaders in any major category. But he’s coming off a good start in Miami and has allowed two or fewer earned runs in five of his last six starts against the Nationals.
Facing Scherzer in a game like this should bring out the best in Jake.
No matter the Cubs’ record, Scherzer isn’t taking them lightly.
“They can do a lot offensively,” he said. “They’ve seen me in the past and have had big games against me. I have to go out there with my ‘A’ game to have success.”
Last year at Wrigley Field the Cubs torched Scherzer for seven runs over five innings in an 8-6 win in May. But he came back to beat them in June at Nationals Park, allowing one run on two hits over seven innings, with 11 strikeouts.
The Cubs hope to keep it close in the late innings, when the Nats bullpen comes in and typically starts folding like lawn chairs, as they did on Monday, allowing four runs in the eighth and ninth innings to give the Cubs a seemingly comfortable 5-0 lead.
But that was just a mirage, as Hector Rondon and Davis struggled in the ninth, making things interesting. Rondon gave up two runs on two hits in 1/3 of an inning, while Davis allowed two runs on three hits and a walk before getting Zimmerman to end it.
This series obviously is more important for the Cubs than the Nationals, who are so far ahead in the mediocre National League East they could win it blind-folded.
Or maybe not.
“It doesn’t matter,” Scherzer said. “Twenty games up, or twenty games down. If you watched last year, the Atlanta Braves were 20 games out of it but fought so hard in August and September, and you’ve seen teams 20 games up still pulling away.
"This is life in the big leagues. Every single day you’ve got to bring it.”
The Cubs brought it on Monday, and as Baez said, they were “into it" before the start. They need to keep that kind of intensity level the rest of the season to get back to their old selves, if that’s possible.
“I always say water seeks its level,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. “They’re going to be there at the end. They have too much talent not to be. They’ve got too good of an organization and too good of a manager not to. It’s always good to play against those guys because it tests where you’re at.”
Where are the Cubs at?
We’ll know more by Thursday night when the four-game series ends.