The Chicago Cubs defeated the Washington Nationals by the slimmest of margins on Monday, overtaking the Nats by a score of 2-1. The game was ugly and excruciating to watch for Cubs fans, as Chicago struggled for most of the afternoon and early evening. The bats flailed away with little success against Washington starter Max Scherzer and the defense was atrocious, making four errors, two of which led to a run and drove starter Jose Quintana out of the game. The consistent errors forced Quintana to work harder throughout his outing and drove up his pitch count early on.
Quintana was the Cubs’ bright spot for much of the contest. He threw five and two thirds innings, allowing only two hits, one walk, and one unearned run, along with seven strikeouts. The lefty kept the Nationals off-balance, and did a great job of stranding runners on base after errors.
The end of Quintana’s night came in the sixth inning, when he induced a standard fly ball to left field. Kyle Schwarber had an easy play to make, but attempted a lazy, one-handed catch, and proceeded to drop the ball and boot it, failing to pick it up with his glove. Nationals hitter Daniel Murphy ran all the way to third base. After Quintana’s exit, Pedro Strop gave up a double to Ryan Zimmerman, and Washington had a 1-0 lead.
Of course, as spectacular as Quintana was, Scherzer was even better. He no-hit the Cubs for six and one third innings before second baseman Ben Zobrist hit a double to left field. Chicago had no shot against Scherzer; they allowed him to pound the strike zone with fastballs, offering little resistance.
Nationals manager Dusty Baker helped the Cubs. He took Scherzer out of the game after Zobrist’s double—98 pitches thrown on a tender hamstring was enough. The issue was not the act of pulling Scherzer, but rather bullpen managment. Lefty Sammy Solis came into the game to face Kyle Schwarber, who has a glowing .000 batting average for the series. Cubs manager Joe Maddon made the obvious move, pinch-hitting righty Albert Almora, who came through with a base hit in the favorable matchup to tie the game. Baker was out-maneuvered, plain and simple.
The Cubs took the lead for good in the eighth inning, when Anthony Rizzo hit an RBI bloop single off lefty Oliver Perez. The Nationals lost a one run game without using any of their top three relievers.
But though Chicago has a 2-1 advantage in the series now, there are a lot of problems that the Cubs need to improve upon. The team has only scored eight runs in three games (on a .179 batting average and .571 OPS), requiring almost perfection from the pitching staff. The bottom of the batting order has been a sinkhole. Jason Heyward is hitting .167, Schwarber .000, Javy Baez .000, and Ian Happ .000—yikes. With the powerful Dodgers coming in the NLCS, the Cubs will need massive improvement to reach the World Series, if they are able to advance past Washington.
Joe Maddon‘s moves continue to be controversial. Zobrist recorded a double and a sparkling defensive play in the late innings, but he also bungled an easy play and made two quick outs at the plate earlier on. Playing Zobrist at the expense of either Jon Jay or Baez becomes more indefensible by the game—Zobrist has a .182 batting average for the series and has been shaky defensively.
Pitcher management is an issue as well. Maddon’s Game 2 mistakes have been discussed at length by the media, but in Game 3, he continued a pattern of going to the bullpen too early. Chicago’s starters have been on point in the series thus far—there is no reason to rush ahead to tired relievers. Maddon’s moves almost cost the Cubs in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. Will they finish Chicago in 2017?
As a last note, beware of Kris Bryant in clutch situations. The third baseman struck out in the eighth inning with the go-ahead run on second, as has happened too often this season. Bryant hit only .237 with a .831 OPS with runners in scoring position during the regular season, compared to .305 and .981 respectively with no one on base. Bryant often tries to do much, and expands the zone accordingly. The Cubs need the 2016 NL MVP to play like himself when it matters most.
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