CHICAGO — Brandon Kintzler was the first to emerge Friday from Wrigley Field’s oddly relocated visitors’ bullpen — a dark, temperature-controlled room under the bleachers behind the ivy-covered brick walls in right field. The Cubs fans were blissfully singing “YMCA,” roused by the two-run home run Chicago shortstop Javier Baez had smacked moments earlier off Tanner Roark, which prompted Kintzler’s appearance with one out in the seventh inning.
Ryan Madson surfaced from the bullpen for the eighth inning. Sean Doolittle followed for the ninth. The three relievers are Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo’s three-pronged attempt to remedy a relief corps that had spent the season as a source of late-inning anxiety, and Friday provided the first chance for the troika to close out a game. The trial was a success; the three combined to toss 2⅔ scoreless innings and Daniel Murphy clubbed a pair of home runs in a 4-2 win over the Cubs to begin a potential National League Division Series preview on a chilly, October-esque afternoon.
“You feel very comfortable putting those guys in the game because you know they’ve been in that situation many times,” Manager Dusty Baker said. “And they feel very comfortable in those situations.”
Baker had a decision to make with a 3-0 lead after the sixth inning. Roark was at 97 pitches and due up second in the seventh. Baker could have ridden it out with the right-hander to save an inning for a bullpen that could be required to shoulder a heavy burden over the next two days when Edwin Jackson and Erick Fedde get starts. Or he could have sent a pinch hitter for Roark and inserted Kintzler to pitch the seventh. He chose to keep Roark in. The pitcher popped out before encountering immediate trouble back on the mound.
Kyle Schwarber cracked Roark’s first pitch of the seventh inning for a double. Two batters later, Baez unloaded with a violent swing for the two-run home run. Out came Baker from the dugout. In came Kintzler.
“We were watching him, particularly in that seventh, because he had 100 pitches,” Baker said. “But that’s nothing for Tanner. He’s a workhorse.”
Kintzler, who was acquired minutes before Monday’s nonwaiver trade deadline, walked Ian Happ to begin his second appearance as a National. But he recovered to induce consecutive groundballs, his specialty, to escape with the lead intact. The bullpen was given a bigger cushion in the eighth when Anthony Rendon’s sacrifice fly scored Howie Kendrick.
Madson then entered to face the heart of the Cubs’ order. First, he dispatched Anthony Rizzo with a strikeout, and Willson Contreras grounded out. But Madson then hit Ben Zobrist with a pitch to bring up the country-strong Schwarber.
It was, on paper, not a good matchup for any right-hander despite Schwarber’s .191 batting average entering the day. He was a left-handed hitter with 17 home runs, a real threat to tie the game with one swing. But Baker, who had the lefty Oliver Perez warming up, stuck with Madson. He was undaunted. He challenged Schwarber with three straight fastballs — 97, 96 and 98 mph, each near the top of the strike zone — and Schwarber swung through them all to end the inning.
“That was impressive,” Baker said.
Doolittle was assigned the ninth. He allowed a leadoff single to Jason Heyward before striking out the ultra-aggressive Baez on three pitches and getting Happ to ground into a game-ending double play for his fifth save as a National on six pitches.
“It seems like each one of them has a really good idea of what their strengths are,” Murphy said. “And then [they’re] coupling those strengths to try to attack hitters the most optimal way.”
The last time the Nationals (64-43) visited the North Side, the Cubs (57-51) muted Bryce Harper with a brazen strategy: Avoid throwing him strikes at all costs, no matter how ridiculous it gets. That was last May, when Harper was the reigning National League MVP and coming off a torrid April. Harper went 1 for 4 with 13 walks and a hit-by-pitch in the four-game series. The bizarreness peaked in the 13-inning finale, when Harper made seven plate appearances. He was walked six times and was hit by a pitch in the other at-bat.
The Cubs dared Ryan Zimmerman, who was hitting behind Harper, to beat them. He didn’t. He went 2 for 19 en route to being one of baseball’s least productive everyday players in 2016. The tactic was a success.
The Nationals arrived at Wrigley Field on Friday with more protection for their right fielder. A resurgent Zimmerman, back in the cleanup hole this season, was given the day off, but there still was plenty of punch behind Harper. Sitting in the cleanup spot for the opener was Murphy, the 2016 NL MVP runner-up and arguably the best pure hitter in the National League over the past 16 months.
Murphy immediately displayed the difference in potency in his first at-bat by whacking a 424-foot two-run home run off right-hander Kyle Hendricks to give Washington a 2-0 lead in the first inning. Murphy swatted another home run in the sixth inning, a solo shot through the wind and just over the wall in left field for the second opposite-field home run of his Nationals career to make it 3-0.
The score held up for another inning before Baez homered off Roark, who allowed two runs on five hits across 6⅓ innings. Roark, who grew up less than 70 miles from Wrigley Field in Wilmington, Ill., has posted a 2.96 ERA in four starts since the all-star break after compiling a 7.90 ERA in his previous seven outings. The difference?
“Stop thinking,” Roark said. “Make your pitches, and everything else is out of your hands.”
Earlier this season, the Nationals’ bullpen might have wasted the performance against the defending World Series champions. It almost certainly would have provided some drama. On Friday, the overhauled relief corps made it stand without the angst.
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