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Nationals 6, Cubs 3: We worried about a bullpen meltdown, and then it happened

And just like that, the series is tied.

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

We have seen this before and it’s not pretty. It was one of the things I feared most about the Cubs postseason — the bullpen and how it would do in critical game situations.

However, let’s get this out of the way right now. Do not blame Joe Maddon for the choice made in the eighth inning to let Carl Edwards Jr. pitch to Bryce Harper with a runner on base and one out. Here is why that was the right decision:

Edwards vs. LHB this season: .119/.244/.193
Mike Montgomery vs. LHB this season: .230/.297/.333
Brian Duensing vs. LHB this season: .258/.301/.381
Justin Wilson vs. LHB this season: .234/.342/.359

Now if you did not know those names and just saw the numbers, which pitcher would you rather have face a lefthanded power hitter? Based on those numbers, CJ was more likely to walk Harper than to serve up a home-run ball. But the homer is what happened, and here’s the explanation:

Joe is right, and so is CJ. It was the right man for the right situation; the pitch just wasn’t executed, and the game was tied. And all of you know this is true:

You know, maybe Joe should have left CJ in after he walked Anthony Rendon, although I imagine CJ was shaken up by the home run. Mike Montgomery was called in and Daniel Murphy singled off him. At this point, any of the three lefthanders was the right choice to face Ryan Zimmerman, because all three have good reverse splits this year. (Raising a reasonable question, though: Why can’t the Cubs find a lefthanded reliever who is actually good at getting lefthanded hitters out?)

And again, a pitch was poorly executed and Zimmerman sent a baseball into the seats at Nationals Park. That gave the Nats a 6-3 lead, which they held onto in an almost mercifully swift ninth inning. Their 6-3 win over the Cubs tied the division series at one win each.

Dusty Baker spoke after the game about “momentum,” but that’s typical Dusty old-school thinking. If I had told you before Friday that the Cubs would be guaranteed (and remember, “there are no guarantees”) to come out of Washington with a split of the two games there, you’d have been pretty happy, right?

There were quite a number of good things that happened in this game, so let’s review those. Perhaps we’ll all feel better after that.

Jon Lester was touched up for a run in the first inning on a home run by Anthony Rendon. After that, though, Lester retired 10 straight Nationals before Zimmerman singled leading off the fifth. By that time, the Cubs had a 3-1 lead, thanks to a pair of home runs of their own. Willson Contreras hit a solo shot in the second [VIDEO].

As noted on the video, that ball at first looked like it would stay in the park, but the “highest homer by a Cub since 2015” kept carrying on a warm, humid, breezy night in Washington.

Two innings later, Kris Bryant led off with a double and that was followed by this blast from Anthony Rizzo:

That led to a two-minute, 16-second crew chief review, which was ruled “call confirmed,” and here’s why:

That play briefly gave Cubs fan Sean Thompson of Virginia his “15 minutes:”

All was sweetness and light in Cubs-land at that point, with a two-run lead and Lester dealing. The Cubs had other chances to pad the lead, even in that inning: Willson Contreras walked following Rizzo’s homer, but Ben Zobrist hit into an inning-ending double play. Javier Baez walked (!) leading off the fifth, was sacrificed to second and stole third, but was stranded. In the sixth, Contreras walked with two out, but was also stranded. And in the seventh, Zobrist led off with a single, but could not advance past first base.

Those are the little things that drive you nuts about games like this. Sure, there was a major bullpen meltdown, but it might not have mattered if the Cubs had scored a couple more runs in the innings prior. What if Harper’s homer happens and the Cubs have five runs, or six, on the board at the time? It’s much less meaningful then. Also, I suspect that if the Cubs are still ahead at the time Harper homers, Wade Davis is probably in the game replacing CJ.

Lester was lifted in the top of the seventh for pinch-hitter Jon Jay, after turning in one of his better starts of the year: six innings, two hits, two walks, just one run (Rendon’s homer). The two starts made by Cubs pitchers this postseason make all other postseason starters look silly:

Pedro Strop threw a scoreless seventh, interrupted only when he hit Matt Wieters with a pitch.

And then the eighth happened, and you read about that already above and I certainly don’t have to re-hash it.

It means as little or as much as you want to make it mean. Remember that this Cubs team went through one of the most stressful postseasons in recent memory just a year ago and came out winners. It’s not precisely the same players, of course, but some of the additions this year (Jay and Davis, in particular) have also been through tough postseason grinds and come out champions. As stated by Rizzo after the game:

Rizzo is right. The Cubs have two home games coming up, and they went 17-5 in their last 22 games at Wrigley Field during the regular season. (Granted, some of those were against really bad teams.) Meanwhile, the Nats were a pedestrian 9-7 in road games in a similar time frame — also many of those games against bad teams. The off day Sunday should help the Cubs clear their heads of any bad feelings after Saturday’s defeat, and note again the words of Maddon, Rizzo and Edwards after the loss. They know they did the right things and it simply didn’t work out. It happens. It’s baseball.

Monday’s game will be at 3:08 p.m. CT, unless it isn’t. Again, the contingency is based on the results of Sunday’s A.L. games. If the Yankees or Red Sox or both win Sunday, the game will be at 3:08. Only if both the Yankees and Red Sox lose will the game be at 4:38. The best-case scenario is for the Red Sox to win, since their game is Sunday afternoon at 1:30 p.m. CT, so the Cubs would know by late afternoon when they’ll play Monday. Otherwise they’ll have to wait until well into the evening, since the Yankees/Indians game doesn’t start until 6:30 p.m. CT. There will be a game thread for both the A.L. games here at 12:30 p.m. CT.

The Cubs and Nationals are scheduled to work out at Wrigley Field Sunday afternoon, as Jose Quintana prepares for his first-ever postseason start. He’ll face Max Scherzer, whose 2017 postseason debut was pushed back due to a hamstring injury.

Hang in there. Saturday counts as just one loss. The series now is best-of-three.

Site note: Cub Tracks, which normally runs at 7 a.m. CT, will run early this afternoon because we wanted to include reaction to Saturday’s game.