WASHINGTON D.C.—The first game of the National League Division Series between the Nationals and Cubs belongs to Chicago, which took a 3–0 win in a quick and efficient start to its World Series title defense.
1. A Pitcher’s Duel in D.C.
After two Wild Card games and a bevy of first-round matchups that saw starting pitchers—almost all of them nominal aces—get stomped on from coast to coast, here finally was the postseason’s first true pitcher’s duel. On one side, Stephen Strasburg, given the Game 1 nod because of the hamstring injury that has bumped Max Scherzer all the way back to Game 3 in Chicago. On the other side, Kyle Hendricks, the soft-tossing changeup specialist who drew the series-opening honors thanks to, in combination, Jon Lester’s poor season and Jake Arrieta’s shaky health.
It’s hard to imagine a bigger contrast in styles than Strasburg and Hendricks. The former is the super-prospect with an arsenal that a video game designer would scrap for being unfair: power fastball at 97, a curveball that snaps, a changeup that disappears at the last second. Then there’s Hendricks, all guile and deception, with a fastball that barely touches 90 mph but armed with a vanishing changeup of his own.
But while Strasburg looked untouchable through the early going, no-hitting the Cubs through five with eight strikeouts to boot, Hendricks matched him inning for inning, with the teams trading zeroes until the sixth. In that frame, it was back-to-back two-out RBI singles from Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo—the first of which ended Strasburg’s no-hit bid and scored Javy Baez to make it 1–0, the second of which dropped just in front of a sliding Bryce Harper to double the advantage—that were the difference. Bryant and Rizzo had each struck out twice in their first two plate appearances against Strasburg, fooled badly by his changeups and curves, but the third time through, they each jumped on a fastball to break the scoreless tie. From there, Hendricks hung on, navigating through a walk in the sixth and an error in the seventh to finish with seven scoreless innings, allowing only two hits and striking out six.
Thanks to injuries and some early-season ineffectiveness, Hendricks struggled to replicate his dominant 2016, when he posted a league-best 2.13 ERA and finished third in the NL Cy Young voting. Likewise for the rest of the Cubs’ rotation, which fell from its lofty heights last season to the middle of the NL pack and seemed to be made up more of question marks than definitive statements as the playoffs began. But Hendricks and Chicago got off to the best start possible.
2. The Pressure Is On Gio Gonzalez
With Scherzer sidelined until the series moves to Wrigley Field, the task of getting the Nationals out of their early hole now falls on Gonzalez. The veteran lefty—he turned 32 in September—is coming off his best season since 2012 as the owner of a 2.96 ERA and 188 strikeouts in 201 innings, but his peripherals suggest a fair amount of smoke and mirrors—namely a low batting average on balls in play and a sky-high stranded runners rate. His postseason history, meanwhile, is checkered: four starts, none of which went past the fifth inning, including his lone turn last year in the NLDS against the Dodgers, in which he labored through 4 1/3 unremarkable innings.
Gonzalez faces as tough a task as any against a Cubs offense that hit lefties well this season (a collective .264/.349/.428 line, with a resulting .777 OPS seventh-best among all teams), and Maddon has plenty of spare parts to throw into the lineup against southpaws. The key for Gonzalez will be efficiency and pace: Too many Nationals fans know the agony of watching him take what feels like an hour between pitches, nibbling on the corners and struggling mightily to throw strikes. Against a lineup like Chicago’s, a pitcher can’t afford to be passive, something Gonzalez knows. “The game’s changing,” he said before Game 1. “For us, it’s trying to attack the strike zone, trying to lock in immediately. You can’t let yourself get in a groove after giving up a couple runs.”
3. Whither Bryce Harper?
For the Nationals, the biggest question going into this series was going to be what they got out of Harper, who missed nearly the entirety of the second half thanks to a knee injury but came back in time to play in the final five games of the season. Those at-bats were about getting his feet under him and letting him regain some timing, but it’s not hard to imagine that there’s still plenty of rust to be worked off after that long of a convalescence. There’s the concern, too, that the injury he suffered—a bone bruise on his knee that, at the time, looked terrifyingly like a ligament tear or worse—could have an effect on his offense.
Game 1 offered no sign that the Harper who terrorized NL pitchers through the first half was there. He did single in his first at-bat, lining a soft base hit into right, but was a non-factor from there: He struck out in the third, flew out to right in the sixth and was the victim of an excellent Baez catch on a weakly-hit popup in the eighth. His legs didn’t seem to be under him on his swings; the same was true on defense, where he came up short on Rizzo’s RBI single on a ball that he normally reaches.
There was plenty of blame to go around for Washington’s ineptitude on offense Friday night: Trea Turner came up empty in four plate appearances atop the lineup with two strikeouts; and behind him and Harper, Anthony Rendon, Daniel Murphy, Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth went a combined 0-for-16 with four strikeouts. The last 25 Nationals batters of the game, meanwhile, went hitless, with three walks between them. But Harper has to be the engine of that offense, and in Game 1, he looked anything but.