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Paul Sullivan: Cubs' victory shows how one slip-up can swing a playoff game

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 06: Javier Baez #9 of the Chicago Cubs celebrates with the dugout after scoring against the Washington Nationals in the 6th inning  during game one of the National League Division Series at Nationals Park on October 6, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images) 775053734
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 06: Javier Baez #9 of the Chicago Cubs celebrates with the dugout after scoring against the Washington Nationals in the 6th inning during game one of the National League Division Series at Nationals Park on October 6, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images) 775053734
Published Oct. 7, 2017

WASHINGTON — Before the start of the National League Division Series, Kyle Schwarber was talking about the importance of defense in what's expected to be a low-scoring series.

"There's always that one play that swings something," Schwarber said. "These are two really good defenses, and maybe that one slip-up might cause something to landslide.

"Hopefully it's not our side, right?"

Right as a rain delay, Schwarber.

The slip-up in Game 1 didn't exactly precipitate a landslide, but that one miscue and Kyle Hendricks' brilliant pitching were enough to propel the Cubs to a 3-0 victory and first blood in the series.

An error by Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon on a grounder hit by Javier Baez led to a two-run sixth inning for the Cubs, and Hendricks outpitched a dominant Stephen Strasburg in a matchup of brains vs. brawn.

In a game that lived up to expectations, the Cubs waited for a chance to pounce, then jumped on Strasburg with eyes wide open. When Kris Bryant stepped up in the fateful sixth, the Nationals Park scoreboard was going berserk, pleading with the sellout crowd of 43,898 to "Get Loud," while cheerleaders ran around with giant placards telling them to "get on your feet."

The contrast between Nationals Park and Wrigley Field, where noise-inducing gimmickry on the video board is forbidden by chairman Tom Ricketts, couldn't have been more glaring.

But the Nats fans did as instructed, and they got very loud before Bryant's two-strike, two-out RBI single ended Strasburg's no-hit bid and sent Baez home from second, snapping the scoreless tie. As soon as the fans got off their feet, Anthony Rizzo singled in front of a sliding Bryce Harper in right to give Hendricks an insurance run, stunning a town that doesn't stun easily these days.

Hendricks turned out to be the Game 1 hero, though for most of the night it looked like it was going to be remembered as the Strasburg Game.

Strasburg was burying the Cubs in the early going, striking out Bryant and Rizzo in each of their first two at-bats and carrying his no-hitter into the sixth.

But the Cubs got the kind of performance from Hendricks they needed. They were spotless on defense from Rizzo nabbing Daniel Murphy's liner in the first to Schwarber's running catch of Harper's liner in the sixth to Bryant's one-handed pickup and perfect throw to retire Jayson Werth in the seventh, to Baez running down Harper's popup in center in the eighth.

No slip-ups here, boss.

No landslides, either.

The Nats also helped out when manager Dusty Baker opted to pitch to Rizzo in the eighth with first base open, two outs and a man on second, Rizzo made him pay with an RBI double to make it 3-0. It was easy to second-guess Dusty, and it will be hard for him to shake it off.

Despite the loss, Strasburg showed why the Cubs need to end this early so they don't have to face him again.

He was making only his second career postseason start, despite being on his fourth playoff team in Washington. In 2012 Strasburg was shut down by general manager Mike Rizzo before the postseason because he'd reached an innings limit imposed before the season because of arm surgery two years earlier.

He pitched well in one NLDS start in 2014, but the Nats fell to the Giants. Last year Strasburg was injured late in the season and wasn't ready to return in time for the postseason. The Nats subsequently lost in the first round without him.

Strasburg and Scherzer are the Nats' version of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, who started three of four games in their 1963 World Series sweep over the Yankees and five of seven games in their 1965 World Series win over the Twins. If Scherzer was going in Game 2 instead of Game 3, they potentially could've started in four of five games.

Instead, Scherzer's hamstring "tweak" last Saturday forced the Nats to give him more rest, leaving it to Gio Gonzalez tonight. Not too shabby, but he's no "Mad Max."

This was a game the Nats probably had to win. The series is far from over, of course, but losing after such a dominant outing by Strasburg had to be tough to swallow, especially for a team that has been reminded of its poor postseason history all week.

The Cubs are assured of at least a split this weekend, and have Jon Lester going in Game 2 tonight.

Crazy start.

Crazy team.

Crazy season.