If I could turn back time, there are three things I would do immediately…
1. Take back those words that hurt you and you’d stay
2. Unless you’re Baby Hitler, in which case you’re toast
3. Travel back to the second inning of tonight’s game and bet every cent I own that the Cubs will be the team to pitch a shutout
If you happened to make such a bet, congratulations on your child’s new college fund!
In honor of tonight’s game, I recommend giving it to Dartmouth.
Game One of this much anticipated NLDS match-up was a thing of beauty and pretty much everything we hoped it would be. It was as if the Cubs and Nationals took a look around the baseball world and said, “These other games are fun and all, but this is what playoff baseball is supposed to look like.”
Washington came out exactly the way you’d expect from a 97-win team who’s spent the entire season hearing about how they can’t get out of the first round. Stephen Strasburg pitched the first half of the game like he was trying to inspire everyone to dig out their thesaurus and simultaneously flip to the entry for “dominant.”
It looked for all the world like he had no-hit stuff and outside of a second-inning walk to Addison Russell, he mowed down the Cubs with ease. His fastball kept hitting 98, his breaking ball looked to set a record for knees buckled outside of a Catholic church, and his changeup had hitters flailing helplessly.
Strasburg’s stuff was so filthy, Jeff Sessions just made it legal for bakers to refuse to bake it a cake. It was reminiscent of Josh Beckett’s Game Five shutout that changed the course of the horrific 2003 NLCS. Or Clayton Kershaw’s path of destruction in Game Two of last year’s. Except as the game went on and the hitless innings started to pile up, there was something noticeably missing from the Cubs…
A sense of doom.
Because while everyone was racking their brains trying to come up with synonyms for “dominant,” Strasburg was matched up against the one player in the ballpark who knew all of them. And was busy providing him with examples.
Just as in last year’s pennant clincher, Kyle Hendricks was a Goddamn cyborg. He gave up a one-out single to Bryce Harper in the first inning and a two-out hit to Michael A. Taylor in the second. And then it was like he looked at what was going on in the top of each inning and thought, “I guess I need to stop doing that.” There would be no more.
He also did this while having to figure out his command early on. Hendricks uncharacteristically walked three on the evening, and several pitches in the first third of the game caught a bit too much of the middle of the zone. He caught a bit of good luck when, with Harper on second in the first inning, Daniel Murphy did to a baseball what history is going to do to his social views. Fortunately, it found Anthony Rizzo’s glove for the third out. And that was the closest the Nats would get to scoring on the night.
Once Hendricks settled in, he was sublime. Ron Darling dubbed him a “chessmaster” which was fitting, because the only way he could have spent three hours frustrating more ballplayers was by sneaking into their locker room and switching all the TVs to Searching for Bobby Fischer. He lived on the corners. He mixed in his changeup masterfully.
And if TBS’s radar gun is to be believed, he even his 90 mph on his fastball. Broadcasters love to talk about his Economics major, but no one ever mentions that he apparently minored in Sandbagging.
Even with this effort, the Cubs would eventually need to score a run in order to win. It’s kind of in the rules. And here’s where that vaunted playoff experience probably came in handy. Because even though Strasburg was carving them up, there was no sense of pressing or panic from Cubs hitters.
That’s the first time that sentence has been written since the October 15, 1908 edition of the Chicago American.
Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo both looked helpless in the first half of the game, striking out twice apiece. Willson Contreras smashed one up the middle but, as would happen several times throughout the night, balls kept finding Daniel Murphy. Weird.
Despite this, it was like they knew all they needed was one opportunity. And that was provided on the first pitch of the sixth inning when Javy Baez chopped one down the third base line. Anthony Rendon made the play but the ball slipped out as he attempted to pull it out of his glove. If only he’d had the foresight to take the field wearing Yadier Molina’s chest protector.
After a Hendricks sacrifice and an unfortunate Ben Zobrist fly out, Strasburg quickly got ahead of Bryant 0-2. His next pitch was a fastball that caught too much of the plate, and Bryant took it the other way for an RBI single to right field to give the Cubs a lead they would not relinquish. Who knew the first hit of the night would be so un-clutch?
And because he’s Kris Bryant, he also alertly took second base with a deft headfirst slide to the outside of the bag when Harper Sosaed his cutoff man. This came in handy when Rizzo proceeded to line an RBI single just in front of a diving Harper. Hendricks had two runs, and that was precisely one more than he’d need.
Remember back in 2015 when we went into Hendricks’s postseason starts just hoping he’d give them four good innings before bullpenning the rest of the game? It is nothing less than astonishing to witness how far he’s gone in just two short years. You’d have to get a PhD from Dartmouth just to find the words to describe how great he’s become.
First he slew Clayton Kershaw in last year’s NLCS. Then Corey Kluber in the World Series. And now Strasburg. He brushes off great pitchers so easily, it’s like they’re human emotions. On a team known for its exuberance and joie de vivre, it’s oddly just as joyful to watch their ace stare down the maelstrom of the Nationals offense and channel his inner Buster Keaton.
And I think we can all agree it’s also great to see an Ivy Leaguer finally make it in the professional world.
Lead photo courtesy Geoff Burke—USA Today Sports