Nothing sums up the first three games of the NLDS better than this tweet:

That’s right, the NationalsStephen Strasburg tossed 5.2 innings at the Cubs in Game 1 and Max Scherzer went two outs further into his hitless bid in Game 3. The Cubs won both games.

The explosive offense that led all of baseball in runs after the All-Star Break has mostly disappeared. In its place through the series’ first three games was a trio of dominant starting pitchers, matching zeroes with the Washington aces until the Cubs could scratch across a run or two.

Pitching wins championships

In Game 1 it was the still-baby-faced Kyle Hendricks mowing down Washington hitters and refusing to let Strasburg’s dominance–and it was dominance; striking out 10 and walking just one over seven innings–rattle him. The soft-tossing 27-year-old used a baffling change-up to stifle the Nats for seven shutout innings. After that game, and his remarkably even-keeled performances in the NLCS and World Series a season ago, Hendricks is quickly gaining a reputation as one of the league’s premier big-game pitchers. He now owns a 1.98 ERA in eight Postseason starts

Monday it was Jose Quintana’s turn to weather the storm. Scherzer wasn’t as overpowering as Strasburg; he didn’t have his best command and he left some pitches over the middle of the plate, but he kept the Cubs off the scoreboard for five innings anyway. The Cubs’ left-hander did the same to the Nationals, inducing a plethora of weak grounders and striking out seven before being undone by a Kyle Schwarber error in left field. It’s starts like these the Cubs’ brass envisioned when they paid a hefty price for the most valuable trade chip on the market in July. The team was short a starting pitcher and Theo and Co. fixed the problem. When the championship window is open, that’s what front offices should do.

In between those two (eventually) victorious efforts was a third solid performance from Jon Lester. One of the best Postseason pitchers of his generation, Lester was mediocre at best down the stretch this season, compiling a 4.46 ERA after the All-Star Break. Saturday, though, he tossed six one-run innings, allowing just two hits. He was in line for a win until…

The Nationals rally

Before Game 1, I wrote in this space that one of the keys to the series would be Bryce Harper’s health. He looked pretty healthy on that swing, although he probably could have hit a hanging curveball like that out on one leg. The homer remains Harper’s only extra-base hit since his return to the lineup on Sept. 26.

If the Cubs eventually lose this series, Harper’s blast will undoubtedly be recognized as a series-turning moment. To be sure, it was a gut punch for the Cubs, who were just five outs away from a 2-0 series lead.

However, it is a testament to the Cubs’ resilience that they picked themselves up in Game 3. After Harper’s homer, after Ryan Zimmerman’s 3-run homer in the same inning, after Schwarber’s error gifted the Nationals a run in Game 3, after being no-hit for 6.1 innings, many teams would have packed it in. Many teams did not break a 108-year World Series drought last season.

The champions respond

With one out in the seventh, 2016 World Series MVP Ben Zobrist clubbed a double to left field, the Cubs’ first hit off Scherzer. When the Nationals brought in a left-hander, Albert Almora–owner of an .897 OPS against lefties this season–pinch-hit for Schwarber and singled to left-center, evening the score.

In the eighth, Tommy La Stella pinch-hit and put together a typically solid at-bat, drawing a walk. Later in the inning, Anthony Rizzo stepped to the plate with a runner on second and two outs. Rizzo was miserable in the season’s final two weeks, posting a .191/.345/.255 line and a 63 wRC+. In the NLDS, however, he’s been the Cubs’ best hitter. He muscled a Brandon Kintzler fastball into shallow left for a game-winning single, his fifth RBI of the series.

After the hit, he had some choice words for the Nationals.

That’s the yell of a man whose team is one win from the NLCS.

Monday’s win was a microcosm of the Cubs’ season. They got a lights-out pitching performance and then outlasted the Nationals with their depth. Almora and La Stella would likely be starters for almost every other team in baseball. To have them coming off the bench in the late innings is a luxury that sets the Cubs apart from other its opponents. Chicago just has more good players than most teams.

The bottom line

This is fun. This series has been a nail-biting, stomach-churning, stress-inducing blast. The Cubs are one win from advancing to the next round and they send Jake Arrieta to the mound on extra rest Tuesday night. What more could you ask for?

Author Details
Content Creator at Armchair Cubs , Armchair All-Americans, LLC
I’m a student at the University of Maryland. I’ve been a baseball fan since I was six and started reading the Chicago Tribune sports section every Sunday morning. Before Maryland, I got a degree from Indiana University, where I watched Kyle Schwarber pulverize baseballs for two years. I even interviewed him once in a media scrum so I’m sure he remembers me. If you need someone to tell you who won the World Series in a given year, I’m your man: I have them all memorized (the year you’re thinking of was probably the Yankees).
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Content Creator at Armchair Cubs , Armchair All-Americans, LLC
I’m a student at the University of Maryland. I’ve been a baseball fan since I was six and started reading the Chicago Tribune sports section every Sunday morning. Before Maryland, I got a degree from Indiana University, where I watched Kyle Schwarber pulverize baseballs for two years. I even interviewed him once in a media scrum so I’m sure he remembers me. If you need someone to tell you who won the World Series in a given year, I’m your man: I have them all memorized (the year you’re thinking of was probably the Yankees).
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