They were just two of Stephen Strasburg’s 81 pitches, and they were the outliers. One was a fastball to Kris Bryant, the other a fastball to Anthony Rizzo. So many of Strasburg’s pitches — before and after — had completely befuddled the Chicago Cubs, the unsolvable crosswords at the end of the week. He was, on paper and in practice, unhittable.
And then there were those two sixth-inning fastballs. They were served to the Cubs’ two best hitters. They provided the Cubs their first two hits. And they offered a glimpse into how the Washington Nationals have absolutely no wiggle room — none — while playing a National League Division Series against the world champions.
The Cubs’ 3-0 victory in Game 1 on Friday night at Nationals Park was built on the back of the lone opportunity their offense had. It was constructed by two hitters who Strasburg had completely locked up — like, in-a-safe-and-thrown-to-the-bottom-of-a-lake locked up — in their previous two at-bats.
And so we have a clear view of what the Nationals must navigate here. To get to where they haven’t been — say, mid-October, a round from now — the Nats must somehow transform into a group that hardly gets a chance, yet wins anyway. They must somehow be able to endure being dominated, yet come through anyway.
They have to find some Bryant and Rizzo within.
“We trust each other,” Rizzo said. “That’s the big, big thing for us is that we know someone is going to come through at some point.”
To gain a full understanding of those two at-bats in the sixth inning Friday night involves both an autopsy of the evening and full consideration of what Bryant and Rizzo — and almost all these Cubs, really — have stored in their memory bank from an October ago. It matters that, with two outs in the 10th inning of the seventh game of the World Series in Cleveland, it was Bryant gathering in a slow groundball, breaking into a giant grin before tossing it across to Rizzo at first for the out that gave the Cubs their first championship in — say it again — 108 years.
“Some people say it’s not different,” said Jon Lester, the sage Cubs lefty who will start Game 2, of the postseason stage. “It is different.”
The Nats have enough experience, in terms of repetitions, to succeed here — three previous series for the core of this team. But those experiences, they ended in thuds. The Cubs’ have one that ended with bubbly.
So there is a calmness about them. Joe Maddon, their manager/psychologist, told the Cubs last year that the postseason would bring them moments when they were in peril, and the month would be defined by how they handled those spots. A year later, the message remains.
“How we react in that moment is going to separate us once again,” Maddon said. “The biggest thing, from my perspective in a teaching moment — once it does occur, you’ve got to get to that next moment as quickly as possible. . . . If you recreate or live in that negative moment way too long, then you’re really giving that other side an advantage.”
The Cubs’ advantage came when they had none. When Strasburg faced Bryant in the sixth, he had not yet given up a hit. And consider how he got there: With pure filth, the best stuff he can have.
“He was the best pitcher I’ve seen, probably,” Rizzo said.
In the first, when he faced Bryant, the 2016 National League MVP, he fed him a fastball and then a curve. Bryant took them both for strikes. Another curveball followed, and Bryant swung through it. Easy out. He got Rizzo down 0-2 on a curveball and a fastball that he swung through, wasted a change-up, then got him to swing through another change-up. No problem.
This is demoralizing stuff. In the fourth, Strasburg actually fell behind Bryant 2-1 before getting a curveball over for a called strike, then coming with a change-up that Bryant flailed at. Rizzo saw five straight strikes – fouling off three fastballs – before he whiffed on a curve.
Four at-bats from two of the best hitters in the game. They were beaten.
“First two at-bats, made me look silly,” Rizzo said. “The whole lineup looked silly the first couple times through.”
But the Cubs, in the moment, aren’t bothered by looking silly. The Nationals managed to crack the door open a tad when Anthony Rendon — with zero errors since July 22 — booted Javier Baez’s chopper to lead off the sixth. After Baez moved to second on a sacrifice, Bryant came to the plate with two outs. He did so not to shrivel. He did so with swagger.
“We just trust that someone is going to do it,” Rizzo said.
Plus, they believe when they have seen someone enough — even someone dominant — they can get to him.
“You get to the third time around, and you’ve seen what the pitcher has,” Bryant said. “And even if he is no-hitting us, you’ve got to take advantage of the mistakes.”
Lest you think there was danger in Strasburg facing a lineup for the third time — a problem for so many pitchers, and a means to analyze so much postseason strategy — put those to rest. When Strasburg is good, he is great deep in games. The third time through this year, he allowed hitters a .184 average and a .539 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
But that kind of stuff doesn’t matter to the Cubs. It only matters what they think of themselves and how they consider that opportunity. Bryant thinks of himself as an MVP, and the moment as an opportunity.
Strasburg used a fastball and a change-up — both fouled off — to get Bryant in an 0-2 hole. This year, with an 0-2 count, Strasburg allowed a .094 average. In that count, Strasburg’s entire arsenal is open to him. Choose the knife, the gun or the sword. Bryant’s only option: “Just react,” he said.
The reaction was to a 96-mph four-seamer. He sent it into right field on a line, a clean hit. Baez scored — and Bryant alertly moved to second when Nats right fielder Bryce Harper air-mailed the cutoff man.
So it was left to Rizzo to add to the lead.
“You’ve got to be focused,” Rizzo said. “You’ve got to be locked in. Those are situations I want to be up in.”
Strasburg went to his change-up, and Rizzo swung through it. But then he reached for the fastball again. Rizzo pulled it to right. Harper lunged, but he couldn’t grab it. Cubs 2, Nats 0. When Rizzo reached first, he looked back across the infield at his delirious dugout and let out a holler.
The Cubs have endured these moments of dissection and scrutiny, survived and thrived. They know that about themselves.
What will the Nationals do, in the coming days, when they get a hittable fastball as their only opportunity of the night? Can they, at this point in their development, react as Bryant and Rizzo did, and as they know they’ll do again?
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.