Nationals Come Alive Just in Time to Stun Cubs and Tie NLDS

The Nationals were staring a two-game deficit in the best-of-five Division Series until they stitched together an unforgettable comeback in the eighth inning. Headlined by a pair of home runs from Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper, Washington is right back in its series with Chicago.
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WASHINGTON D.C.—Five outs from an 0–2 NLDS hole and a potential elimination game at Wrigley Field against the defending World Series champions, the Nationals flipped the script. Lifted by a game-tying blast from Bryce Harper and a go-ahead three-run shot from Ryan Zimmerman, Washington stole a game from Chicago by scoring five runs in the eighth inning for a 6–3 win that evened the series at a game apiece.

1. Explosion in the Eighth

The Nationals’ eighth-inning outburst was as loud as it was unexpected. For the previous 16 innings, Washington’s imposing lineup—which scored the fifth-most runs in the regular season—had collected a grand total of one run and four hits, laid low by the Cubs’ combo of Kyle Hendricks (seven shutout frames in Game 1) and Jon Lester (one run in six innings of Game 2). Strikeouts and weak contact abounded, particularly from the middle of the lineup, with Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Daniel Murphy, Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth combining to go 3-for-32 as they headed into the eighth inning of Saturday night’s contest trailing 3–1.

Ironically, it wasn’t any member of that hard-hitting quintet that got things started against Cubs reliever Carl Edwards Jr., the second man out of Chicago’s bullpen. It was veteran first baseman Adam Lind, who came off the bench for the first postseason at-bat of his career and lashed a leadoff single into left. A pinch-hitter extraordinaire—he hit .356/.396/.644 off the bench during the regular season—Lind gave way to pinch-runner Victor Robles, but after Edwards’ strikeout of Trea Turner, it looked like the rookie and the rally might go nowhere.

Enter Harper. His first seven NLDS at-bats amounted to one single, two strikeouts and plenty of weak contact—to be expected after he missed nearly the entire second half with a knee injury. But while he looked far from 100% at the plate or in the field, he could sense things rounding into place. “The more at-bats I get, the more comfortable I get,” he said before Game 2, adding, “If you don’t get it done your first or second at-bat, the third or fourth at-bat could be huge.”

He proved himself prescient with his fourth trip to the plate. After swinging through an Edwards curveball for strike one, Harper laid off three straight fastballs, then got another curve that spun into the middle of the plate. He didn’t miss it, rocketing the ball 421 feet to the furthest reaches of the second deck in rightfield, and sending the crowd into a deafening, delirious roar. With one swing, the game was tied.

It didn’t stay that way for long. Rendon, whose solo homer in the first off Lester had put the Nationals on the board for the first time this series, drew a walk to chase Edwards. In came southpaw Mike Montgomery to face the lefty-swinging Murphy, who was hitless in his first seven trips to the plate in the series but lined a single over third to put two on with one out.

That left things up to Zimmerman, who took a changeup for a strike before lofting a ball high in the air to leftfield. It looked harmless at first, with leftfielder Ben Zobrist quickly drifting underneath it. But on an unseasonably warm October night—game-time temperature was 82 degrees at first pitch—the ball kept carrying and carrying, and Zobrist kept going back further and further, until he finally reached the wall and put his glove up only to watch the ball land just out of his reach in a flowerbed in front of the seats. As Zimmerman rounded the bases, arms outstretched, the fans went ballistic yet again. The Nationals had completed the comeback.

One inning doesn’t undo the 16 previous, but it could provide a jolt to a team that looked all but dead and all but certain to arrive in the North Side of Chicago with perhaps only one game left in its season. If nothing else, Harper’s homer should be a relief. “We knew that Harp was due,” said manager Dusty Baker after the game. “Hopefully that’s the beginning.”

2. Battle of the Bullpens Finally Ends in Nationals’ Favor

Normally in the postseason, it’s the Nationals’ bullpen that leaves its fans reaching for antacids and littering Twitter with first and second guesses. How Washington’s revamped relief corps—the team added Ryan Madson, Sean Doolittle and Brandon Kintzler, all former closers, at the trade deadline after a disastrous first half—would handle the playoffs was an open question coming into the series, with plenty of worries that a bullpen without a truly dominant late-inning option could once again sink the team’s World Series hopes.

But this time around, it was the other team’s relievers who came up small when the pressure was at its highest, with the duo of Edwards and Montgomery crumbling in the eighth, while the Nationals shined in their first real test. With starter Gio Gonzalez knocked out after five mostly solid innings, the quintet of Matt Albers, Sammy Solis, Madson, Oliver Perez and Doolittle kept the Cubs off the board over their collective four innings of work. Perez in particular got two crucial outs in the top of the eighth with one swing, inducing a 6–3 double play from Anthony Rizzo to preserve the two-run deficit. Doolittle, meanwhile, was nails in his first postseason save chance for his new team, allowing a one-out single but no more to finish the win.

Baker doesn’t have an Andrew Miller-like piece in his bullpen, nor does he have the arsenal of ex-closers that the Yankees do. But he was able to stitch together outs using the motley crew he’s been given, playing matchups with Albers, Solis and Perez. He’ll have to keep doing that for as long as his team is alive, but Saturday’s game should at least give him confidence that his group won’t implode at the first sign of trouble.

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For the Cubs, meanwhile, it’s too early to say that manager Joe Maddon has a potential eighth-inning problem on his hands—especially given that Edwards breezed through a perfect eighth in Game 1, striking out a pair—but beyond closer Wade Davis, there are no sure things in his bullpen. The lanky Edwards is a strikeout machine, having punched out 94 in 66 1/3 regular-season innings, but his control wavers, and he didn’t get much exposure in last year’s postseason. Maddon insisted after the game that Edwards remains a high-leverage option—“I have all the confidence in the world in him,” he said—but it’ll be interesting to see who gets the call the next time the Cubs find themselves with a narrow lead and only a few outs to go.

3. Don’t Blame Cubs’ Collapse on Lester

It will be lost amid the eighth-inning anarchy, but Lester’s strong outing is worth singling out. His sole blemish on the evening was Rendon's homer; from there, he was nearly untouchable, retiring 10 straight after the home run and escaping a bases-loaded jam in the fifth to finish with only the one run and two hits allowed over six.

In many ways, 2017 was a disappointment for Lester. He failed to reach the 200-inning mark for the first time since 2011. His 4.33 ERA was his worst mark since ’12, and his walk and home-run rates spiked after several seasons of ace-level work. His resulting 100 ERA+ marked him as essentially league average, as did his 0.8 WAR. It was far from the performance expected of the team’s $155 million ace.

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Lester was an integral part of last year’s World Series run for Chicago, with a 2.02 ERA in 35 2/3 innings and NLCS MVP honors. He set the tone for the Cubs from the first night, opening the NLDS against the Giants with eight shutout innings. And with the Cubs’ rotation looking far shakier in this second postseason trip, it was imperative that the Cubs get better out of Lester in October than they had from April through September.

Lester wasn’t quite his old flame-throwing self in Game 2, striking out only two batters on the night, but he was more than good enough, using only 86 pitches to get through six before being lifted for a pinch-hitter in the seventh. Should the Cubs need it, he’s lined up to start a potential do-or-die Game 5 right back in Washington. Saturday night’s outing should give them confidence that he’s up to that task.