Anthony Rendon stretched the lead with a single later in that at-bat. Daniel Hudson soon finished it off, after the bullpen had blown a three-run lead earlier, by completing his second perfect inning. It was the first time this season that the Cubs were swept off their own field.
“Resilient,” Manager Dave Martinez said of his team, his eyes a bit watery, his voice catching with emotion at points of his postgame news conference. “They’re very resilient.”
This was Washington’s fifth straight win, its seventh in its past eight games and its 12th in 14 to move four games ahead of the Cubs atop the National League wild-card standings. And while the past few weeks have included some easier victories — against the San Francisco Giants, the Cincinnati Reds and the Pittsburgh Pirates before coming here — this was a statement sweep for the Nationals.
They are 73-57 and a season-best 16 games over .500 and have the majors’ best record since May 24. The Cubs entered the series with the fourth-best record at home, 44-19, and had dropped only one series at Wrigley before this one. They are contending to win the NL Central. They are a good club, by more than one measure, and have added critical pieces throughout the season.
But the Nationals spent three days picking them apart, one inning at a time, with the rally in the 11th inning providing an exclamation point. Offense was the constant for the Nationals all weekend. Aníbal Sánchez threw 8 1/3
dominant innings Friday, even after they arrived in Chicago at 1 a.m. the night before. Their bullpen covered 14 outs without allowing a run Saturday. And on Sunday, at the tail end of a seven-day, seven-game road swing, their relievers faltered, and the Nationals gutted it out anyway.
“Our pitchers are going to pick us up a lot of times in games when we score no runs or maybe one run,” Rendon said. “But it’s our job as hitters, as position players, to pick up our pitchers as well. It’s not necessarily one-sided.”
Long before extra innings and long before that wild pitch put Washington ahead for good, a tight game dissolved into an even tighter finish. Rendon nudged the Nationals ahead with a solo home run in the fourth. Addison Russell answered in the fifth with a solo shot of his own, and that’s how it went for the rest of the afternoon.
Stephen Strasburg struck out 10 on a season-high 113 pitches. He also stranded two runners in his sixth and final frame, taming an inning that could have gone sideways and giving the Nationals a chance to push back in front. And they did, scoring three runs in the seventh before their relievers couldn’t keep the ball in the park.
The wind was blowing in, but it didn’t matter. Hunter Strickland got two outs in the seventh, then fell behind Victor Caratini and served up a fastball that he lifted just inside the right field foul pole. Fernando Rodney got two outs in the eighth, then fell behind Kyle Schwarber and served up a fastball that wound up in the left field seats. That tied the score and triggered a loud roar from the home fans. It felt like an old script for the Nationals, the bullpen wilting again and the rest of the team collapsing under its weight.
But this one didn’t end the same way.
“They feel like they’re never out of any game, and that’s the attitude we have,” Martinez said. “I can tell you now, the attitude I instill is: ‘This game is not over until the last out. Keep playing hard. Anything can happen.’ ”
You may recall what happened here last August, in the twilight of a lost season, even if you would much rather forget. The Nationals led by three runs in the ninth. Ryan Madson was on the mound. David Bote was at the plate. The Nationals were hanging by a thread at the bottom of the pennant race. They were alive, just barely, if you twisted the math a certain way, until one swing decided they weren’t.
Bote lifted a two-out, two-strike, walk-off grand slam into the chilled, late-summer air. The Cubs danced onto the field in shocked celebration. The Nationals walked away dazed, deeper back in a race that wouldn’t tilt their way. When the year was later dissected, with perspective only offered by time, that night looked like the end of a run that never began. It soon became another reason to sell, first Daniel Murphy, then Matt Adams, then Madson and Gio Gonzalez before the month was out. It stung in so many ways.
But there was no end in sight at Wrigley Field on Sunday. There was just a sweep and a beginning, or something of the sort, for a team that keeps finding ways to outdo itself. That’s the difference a year can make. That’s how the Nationals left Chicago this time around.