WASHINGTON, D.C. – The pitchers’ duel, whose heartbeat slowed during baseball’s regular season and stopped altogether in the first days of the 2017 postseason, was defibrillated back to life Friday night. The Chicago Cubs couldn’t hit Stephen Strasburg. The Washington Nationals couldn’t figure out Kyle Hendricks. It mattered not that one is a strapping 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds with a fastball that sits at 97 mph, the other an undersized Ivy Leaguer lucky when his heater starts with the number 9. Great pitching comes in all forms, and Game 1 of the National League Division Series offered each end of the power-finesse gamut.
The beauty of a pitchers’ duel is the reality that at some point, it will end. Someone will crack or find himself let down by his teammates. Or, in the case of Strasburg, both. First came third baseman Anthony Rendon bobbling a ground ball to start the fifth inning. Then with two outs and two strikes, Kris Bryant lacing a single to right field and hustling into second on the throw. And after that came an Anthony Rizzo single. All it took was three plays, because the Nationals couldn’t even muster one against Hendricks, whose seven shutout innings paved the way for the Cubs to begin the defense of their championship with a 3-0 victory at Nationals Park.
While Hendricks was unquestionably the best Cubs pitcher in the season’s second half, his selection as Game 1 starter wasn’t a lock, with longtime playoff stalwart Jon Lester available. Hendricks rewarded the assignment with a compendium of ground balls and strikeouts, getting 12 of his 21 outs on the ground and six via punch-out – one in each of his final half-dozen innings. The Nationals went hitless for the final seven innings and managed only two in the game.
Gone, just like that, was the home-field advantage Washington earned through a superior regular season to Chicago’s. And with Cy Young favorite Max Scherzer not starting until Game 3 because of a tender hamstring, the onus falls evermore Saturday on starter Gio Gonzalez to do what Strasburg couldn’t.
And that’s a heavy burden, because Strasburg did plenty. His ERA at the end of the night remained 0.00, both runs unearned because of Rendon’s error. Strasburg allowed just three hits, walked one and struck out 10, including Bryant and Rizzo in each of their first two at-bats.
The third time around proved different. Javier Baez started the inning with a chopper down the line that Rendon fielded but bobbled. Hendricks sacrificed Baez to second, where Bryant took advantage of a 96-mph fastball Strasburg left over the heart of the plate and laced it into right-center field. He hustled into second and scored two pitches later, when Rizzo hammered a fastball that a diving Bryce Harper couldn’t corral. Rizzo equaled the Nationals’ hit total for the night in the eighth inning when, after fighting off three straight Ryan Madson fastballs, he sliced a double down the left-field line to score Jon Jay.
The Nationals couldn’t answer with the top of their lineup against reliever Carl Edwards Jr., and Cubs closer Wade Davis pitched a clean ninth inning for the save. And not only do they have Lester in Game 2, the Cubs now guarantee themselves a chance at Wrigley Field next week to keep the Nationals franchise without a playoff series win.