The Washington Nationals kept insisting Monday night they are just as good as the Chicago Cubs, the defending World Series champions.
Really, they kept saying, even better.
They talked about bad breaks, unlucky bounces, bloop hits and line drives that were caught, but all that matters at this time of year is the scoreboard.
The Cubs, 2-1 winners over the Nationals, are just one victory from a third consecutive trip to the National League Championship Series, leading the best-of-five series, 2-1.
The Nationals are one loss away from bowing out in the first round for the fourth time in six years.
“We don’t feel like we’re getting beat, or embarrassed,’’ Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy said. “We feel we’re just as good as this team. Or not better.
“We just have to come [Tuesday], and show who we are.’’
The Cubs may have outscored the Nationals by just one run this series, but the way they’re winning, it’s as if they’re taunting the bad boys from the NL East.
Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who got the game winner on a two-out bloop single in the eighth, was screaming, “Respect me, respect me,’’ when the ball landed in between three Nationals.
Rizzo was seething, he said, because first base was open, the Nats chose not to intentionally walk him, and he wants to “make guys pay.”
But the Cubs are really making the Nationals pay from the pitching mound.
Sure, it’s the Nationals who for the second time this series had a starter – Max Scherzer, on this night – flirt with a no-hitter.
Scherzer, pitching his first full game in 15 days after a strained hamstring, retired the first nine batters he faced, and didn’t give up a hit until one out in the seventh. It came just two days after Stephen Strasburg no-hit the Cubs for 5 2/3 innings.
Yet, it’s been all for naught, as the Cubs’ starting rotation has stolen the show.
Their starting trio of Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester and Jose Quintana on Monday, have gone 18 2/3 innings, yielding just six hits and one earned run.
For those keeping score, that’s a 0.48 ERA.
“You had to match (Scherzer’s) great pitching performance with another one,” says Cubs manager Joe Maddon. “And we did.’’
If it wasn’t for left fielder Kyle Schwarber’s two errors on a routine fly ball that put Murphy on third base, scoring on Ryan Zimmerman’s ensuing double, the Nats would have been shut out for the second time in three games. They have scored earned runs in just two of 27 innings, producing 11 hits.
They are batting .121 in the series, with a .200 on-base percentage.
Trea Turner, their leadoff hitter who stole 46 bases in just 98 games, has yet to reach base in 12 plate appearances, striking out five times.
The Nationals, who scored the most runs, and hit the more homers in franchise history, are running out of time.
Sure, it’s easy to say now that perhaps Nats manager Dusty Baker should have left Scherzer in the game, having thrown 98 pitches, when he came to the mound with one out in the seventh inning. He looked at catcher Matt Wieters. He talked to Scherzer. Neither convinced him that Scherzer should stay in the game.
“I knew you guys were going to second-guess that,’’ Scherzer said, “but those guys are paid to make a decision They’ve done their homework. I understand it. I was juiced out of my mind with adrenaline, but I understood it.’’
The Cubs’ bullpen, with Carl Edwards Jr. getting the win, gave up just one hit in 3 1/3 innings. The Nationals bullpen gave up three hits to Scherzer’s one, including Rizzo’s backbreaking blooper off Oliver Perez, falling just in between as many hits as Scherzer in their 1 2/3 innings of work, including Rizzo’s soft fly ball that hung up in the air, but landed just outside the reach of Jayson Werth in left field, Michael Taylor in center and Turner from shortstop.
When the game ended, the Nats couldn’t let it go, with Werth and Turner huddled around their replay monitor, seeing if anything could have been done differently.
“In the moment, it’s a tough call for someone to get there and call it, because you’re not going to hear it,” says Werth. “What can you say, it’s playoff baseball.’’
The time of year where the Cubs have thrived, and the Nats have wilted, with the spotlight burning its brightest.
“We’ve won two in a row before,’’ Zimmerman said. “We can do it again.’’
They’ve just never done it in October.
The Cubs are the latest to show them how it’s done.
This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook.