When October has never been kind, when postseason games have fallen, one after another, into a heap of painful memories, the littlest mishaps seem to revive old misfortune.
The Washington Nationals have never suffered playoff imperfection with impunity, and they did not begin a new trend Friday night.
The mistakes they made in a 3-0 loss to the Chicago Cubs were small. A ball fell out of Anthony Rendon’s glove. A would-be cutoff throw to the infield sailed over its target. A pitch Stephen Strasburg meant to be elsewhere ended up in the middle of the plate.
Faced with the sudden deficit, an offense that was not shut out for the first 87 games of the regular season suddenly fell dormant. Those errors, as so often seems to be the case with this team, were damning — in part because the Nationals made them, in part because they could not find a way to overcome them.
“That’s playoff baseball,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “. . . You have to kind of do the little things right and take advantage of the breaks you get, like they did.”
No National would admit the quiet confidence the team carried after 97 wins and an easy division title evaporated Friday night. Quite frankly, it probably didn’t. This was, as almost every National said afterward, just one game.
But a message is blaring loudly out of the silence created by their sudden series deficit: Playoff baseball will not part at their feet, clearing a smooth path to the title. Mistakes, small and large, will matter. They trail the National League Division Series, 1-0.
This team will be haunted in October until it isn’t. The ghosts — whoever they are, wherever they rest, whatever the reason for their seeming grudge against this team — arrived in about the sixth inning Friday to reclaim their perch on the Nationals’ shoulders. For five innings, this looked like a team unconcerned with history and ready to rewrite it. After the sixth, it looked like a team fighting history’s weight.
Until Rendon’s error gave the Cubs a base runner to start the sixth, Strasburg was building the longest no-hit bid any man had ever accumulated against the Cubs in October.
“It’s an error,” Rendon said. “It’s like when you have a car accident. It’s not a car purpose. It’s a mistake. We’re human.”
Until Strasburg missed with an 0-2 pitch to Kris Bryant, he had completely shut down the Cubs with one of the more impressive postseason pitching performances in Nationals history.
“It was just one pitch to Bryant,” Strasburg said. “I didn’t need to throw that good of a pitch with two strikes.”
Until Bryce Harper tried to throw home to get Bryant, instead of hitting his cutoff man, that error might have only led to one run. Instead, Bryant reached second and scored when Anthony Rizzo singled a moment later.
“I was just trying to come up and throw it to the cutoff man,” Harper said, “and threw it a little bit too high.”
And the Nationals never rallied against Kyle Hendricks, one of the smart, crafty types who have given this lineup fits all season — but not quite like this. The Nationals did not have a hit after the second inning — 25 futile plate appearances in a row.
“From an offensive perspective,” Daniel Murphy said. “We’ve got to put more pressure on the opposing team.”
And as if to confirm the collective October disease, Ryan Madson — a newcomer who allowed three earned runs in 19⅔ innings after being traded to the Nationals — allowed one in his first postseason appearance with them.
The reckoning was always going to come. The regular season was never going to be the story and therefore never included much urgency. After months of waiting for October again, would the Nationals be able to conjure the intensity October requires? Did they have it to begin with?
Strasburg did. He has waited as long for this moment as anyone, sitting out the 2012 postseason to preserve his health for future postseasons, though he only got one October chance. His reputation for physical fragility is well-developed by now. But his capacity to handle pressure had not been tested much.
Strasburg seemed to grow stronger in the scrutiny. He struck out hitters on his curveball, change-up and fastball. He struck them out swinging, looking and with knees buckling. By the fifth inning, he had not allowed a hit. Cubs stars Bryant and Rizzo struck out twice each, in the same game, three times in 2017.
After four innings, Strasburg struck them both out twice. After 14 hitters, he had broken the Nationals/Expos record for strikeouts in a postseason game with eight. Through five innings, he had not allowed a hit — “maybe the best he’s been all year,” catcher Matt Wieters said.
Then, on the first pitch of the sixth, Javier Baez chopped a ball to Rendon. He could not get it out of his glove. Rendon committed his first error since July 22 — nearly 500 innings.
After Hendricks bunted Baez to third, another uncharacteristic mistake struck: Strasburg left the 0-2 pitch over the plate to Bryant. He and Wieters wanted it up, to change his eye level. It stayed down, at swing level. Rizzo singled, too, and Bryant — who was standing on second because Harper missed the cutoff man a few moments before and allowed him to advance — scored.
Strasburg’s final line was the stuff with which demons are vanquished — seven innings, 10 strikeouts, three hits, no walks. He did not allow an earned run. But he left the game trailing.
“He deserved to win,” Harper said.
The Nationals, on this night, did not. They let an opportunity slip away and allowed bitter memories to crawl back into their consciousness, unchecked by the talent that was supposed to make things different this time — and still could.
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