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Cubs 2, Nationals 1: Winning ugly

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The Cubs are on the brink of their third straight NLCS.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

If you ever meet someone who doesn’t like baseball, or who says, “Baseball is boring,” sit that person right down and watch a video of Game 3 with them.

Because the Cubs’ 2-1 win over the Nationals had just about everything that makes baseball thrilling and exciting.

Good defense by both teams... and bad defense by both teams. Dominating pitching, and pitching that gave up hits at precisely the wrong times. Good baserunning, and some headscratchingly-bad baserunning. Managerial moves that will be questioned for a long time.

In the end, though, it was a bloopy little hit by Anthony Rizzo that was surrounded by three Nationals but caught by none of them, scoring a man who had scored exactly two runs for the Cubs during the regular season, that gave the Cubs a well-earned 2-1 win that put them one win away from the National League Championship Series for the third straight year. If they do beat the Nats one more time, that sets up a NLCS rematch with the Dodgers, who defeated the Diamondbacks late Monday night to sweep their division series.

You could not have drawn up a more perfect scene for this game. The weather was spectacularly good for early October: 76 degrees at game time, sunny, light winds that had no effect on baseballs. Outside the ballpark before the game, fans who didn’t have tickets lined up for possible day-of-game sales. I don’t know if any of those folks got into Wrigley, but some of them had lined up as early as 2 a.m.

When the game began, Max Scherzer, who will likely take home his third Cy Young Award next month, returned to the dominant form he had shown until a hamstring “tweak” in his last regular-season start pushed him back from a likely Game 1 start to this game. He retired the first nine Cubs he faced, four by strikeout, before hitting Jon Jay to lead off the fourth. One out later, Rizzo forced Jay and advanced to second on a throwing error, and Willson Contreras walked. But Ben Zobrist grounded out to end that inning.

Jose Quintana nearly matched Scherzer. Through five innings he allowed just two hits and a walk, plus Bryce Harper (who got booed, but not to Ryan Braun levels) reaching on an error by Zobrist in the third. That put Nats runners on first and third with two out, and Anthony Rendon sent a ball toward right field. That’s a tough sun field in day games in the summer; in the fall, with a lower sun angle, the degree of difficulty is much higher. Not for Jason Heyward, though [VIDEO].

Heyward made that play look easy. Trust me, it wasn’t. He’s running at an odd angle, the sun nearly directly in his eyes, and he runs it down like it’s just another day at the office. This is the value of Heyward to this team even if he doesn’t hit. He’s the best right fielder in the game.

In the fourth, after Quintana’s only walk, Jay said, “If J-Hey can do that, so can I!” [VIDEO]

Jay’s route to the ball wasn’t the best, but he got there and made the grab to keep the game scoreless.

Into the sixth we went, still scoreless, and with two out in the top of the inning, Quintana got Cubs nemesis Daniel Murphy to hit a ball to left that tailed away from Kyle Schwarber. Kyle caught up to the ball and... [VIDEO]

That wound up being two errors, one allowing Murphy to reach second, the other (kicking the ball) putting Murphy on third.

Give Kyle credit for being the standup guy he always is:

It was at this point that Joe Maddon made one of those decisions that would likely have been ripped apart if the Cubs hadn’t won the game. He lifted Quintana, who had been dealing, after 96 pitches. Q could almost certainly have gone longer; I had been wondering at the time whether he might have even been able to go seven. Even without knowing what was going to happen next — an RBI double by Ryan Zimmerman off Pedro Strop — the move is defensible. At some point, you have to trust your bullpen or you’re not going anywhere in a modern postseason.

Scherzer issued a one-out walk in the sixth, but Rizzo hit into a double play to end the inning.

Strop, to his credit, threw a 1-2-3 seventh. That was helped out by this stellar play by Addison Russell [VIDEO].

Give credit to Rizzo, too, on that play, for the great stretch to retire a pretty fast runner.

Scherzer entered the seventh, still having allowed no Cubs hits, even though the Cubs had chances to score with baserunners on three walks and Jay being hit by a pitch. One out into the inning, Zobrist ended any further thoughts of a postseason no-hitter [VIDEO].

Jayson Werth played that ball well off the wall and nearly threw Zobrist out at second base. But a double it was, and then Dusty Baker made a decision that Nats fans will question forever, probably. He took Scherzer out of the game at 98 pitches. It was just about the same call as Maddon made. It’s a defensible choice, and when lefthander Sammy Solis entered, Joe sent Albert Almora Jr. to bat for Schwarber. Almora was likely in the game anyway after the seventh for defense, but here it was his offense that gave the Cubs a huge boost [VIDEO].

Almora ran the count full before lining a changeup into center field to tie the game 1-1. Heyward followed with a single, putting Almora in scoring position

Then some bad baserunning ended the inning. Baker brought in Brandon Kintzler to pitch to Russell, who hit a fly ball that Michael A. Taylor ran down. Heyward must have thought it had a better chance to drop than it did; he was past second base when the ball was caught and was doubled off first base to end the inning [VIDEO].

Carl Edwards Jr. was summoned to pitch the eighth. Zobrist, who had made an error on what seemed a routine play earlier in the inning, atoned for that one with this great diving stop [VIDEO].

The next hitter was Harper, who had homered off CJ’s hanging curveball Saturday in Washington. This time, CJ threw nothing but fastballs to Harper and struck him out, then got Rendon to ground to Russell to end the inning.

Tommy La Stella, who had been on deck to bat for Strop when the double play ended the seventh, led off the eighth pinch-hitting for Edwards. Not only had TLS been an excellent PH during the regular season with nine pinch hits, he had also drawn 10 pinch walks, producing a .488 OBP as a pinch-hitter in 2017.

The patient La Stella worked Kintzler for a walk. Jay sacrificed pinch-runner Leonys Martin to second. Kris Bryant struck out, and that brought up Rizzo.

Here’s where Dusty Baker will be second-guessed forever. With first base open, he could have intentionally passed Rizzo and brought in his fireballing righthander Ryan Madson to throw to Contreras.

Instead, he called on lefthander Oliver Perez to face Rizzo. Rizzo hit lefthanders pretty well this year: .260/.374/.507 in 150 at-bats. Anthony didn’t wait, offering at Perez’s first pitch, which was popped into short center field [VIDEO].

That found just the right spot, landing untouched between Werth, Taylor and shortstop Trea Turner. Martin scored and the Cubs had the lead. You don’t have to be a lip-reader to see what Rizzo said at the end of that video: “Respect me! Respect me!”

That made it Wade Davis time, though Davis was the only reliever warming up during the eighth-inning rally and he was coming into the game regardless of the score.

He struck out Murphy. Cub-killer Murphy is 1-for-11 in this series with three strikeouts. Zimmerman grounded to Javier Baez, who had entered the game for defense. And then Davis got Werth to hit this popup and Wrigley Field exploded in joy. [VIDEO].

Look at the reactions by Baez and Davis after Rizzo catches Werth’s pop fly. Baez is ready to jump out of his skin. Davis looks like he’s in line at the DMV. To each his own, I suppose.

What can you say? Four fielding errors, some questionable baserunning, managerial choices that can be second-guessed and the Cubs still win the ballgame. That was the best game I’ve seen this year and, given its impact on a playoff series, one of the best ever. It had the ballpark pulsating from first pitch to last out.

In case you were wondering about the errors:

Needless to say, defense is usually played better in 2017 than it was in 1907. While Cubs defense was shaky in this one, Quintana’s outing added to the outstanding starting pitching the Cubs have received in the series:

And regarding the no-hit bid Scherzer took into the seventh:

Personally, I wouldn’t recommend that as a way to win games. Whatever works, though.

Game 3 was the 29th postseason game played by the Cubs over the last three seasons (nine in 2015, 17 in 2016, three so far this year). Much of the team’s core has been the same through all three seasons. For lack of a better term, these guys just seem to know exactly what it takes to win, even when their play is sloppy and error-filled. It is, as Schwarber said, a credit to every single man on this Cubs team that they pick each other up when one of them makes a mistake.

And now, it’s Jake Arrieta’s turn to carry on in the 2017 tradition of Cubs starters having great postseason outings. Jake says his hamstring is a “non-issue” and he’s ready to go Tuesday afternoon:

"Timing is really good. The stuff is good," he said. "The arm strength hasn't been affected, and if there's any effect there, I think it's in a positive way."

Tanner Roark will be on the mound for the Nationals. Game time has been set for 4:30 p.m. CT. The weather forecast isn’t good, calling for showers and occasional rain off and on much of the late afternoon and evening. The chances are higher the later it gets, which is why MLB set the game time for 4:30 even before the Dodgers/D-backs game ended.

The Cubs hope to close it out and not have to go back to Washington for Game 5. I’m all for that.

#LetsGo #FlyTheW