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2017 Cubs victories revisited, October 6: Cubs 3, Nationals 0

The Cubs took the first game of their division series.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Without home field, the Cubs would have to win at least one game on the road to take the division series against the Nats, and they did so with a shutout in Game 1.

In 2017, baseball teams search primarily for one thing when evaluating young pitchers for the draft or for signing: velocity. If you can’t throw 95+, you’re likely not even going to get a second look.

That’s what makes Kyle Hendricks even more enjoyable to watch. He’s a throwback to an earlier era, when pitchers didn’t have to overpower hitters, but instead got them out with location, movement, breaking pitches and intelligence that creates a game plan on how to attack each opposing batter.

Everyone here, I think, knows how big a Kyle Hendricks fan I am, and have been since even before he landed on the Cubs’ major-league roster in the summer of 2014. Watching him carve up opponents and getting some of the best power hitters in baseball to tap little ground balls to second base is a joy, something we rarely see in modern baseball.

Friday night’s Game 1 of the division series between the Cubs and Nationals was a clinic in all of the above, conducted by the man we, and his teammates, call “The Professor.” Hendricks allowed just two singles and three walks in seven magnificent shutout innings, leading the Cubs to a 3-0 win over the Nationals and a 1-0 lead in the division series. Just one Nats runner got past first base all night.

Credit where credit is due: Stephen Strasburg was even better than Hendricks for five innings. In that time Addison Russell’s two-out walk in the second inning provided the Cubs with their only baserunner. Cubs hitters were flailing away at Strasburg pitches far out of the strike zone as he struck out eight in those first five innings. The game was flying along at a pace I didn’t think MLB permitted for postseason games, at least not based on the first couple of days of 2017 postseason ball, where typically it was taking two hours to play five innings.

The Cubs, as they usually are when they are winning, were helped out by some strong defense. After Cub nemesis Daniel Murphy (who otherwise was 0-for-3) walked to lead off the fourth, Hendricks got Ryan Zimmerman to hit this ground ball right at Russell:

Games like this often turn on a defensive miscue, and so it was Friday night. Javier Baez led off the sixth inning by bouncing a ball down the third-base line, but Anthony Rendon couldn’t handle it and Javy was safe. Hendricks followed by executing a perfect sacrifice bunt. Ben Zobrist, last year’s World Series hero, couldn’t advance Baez, and that left things up to Kris Bryant:

In addition to giving the Cubs a 1-0 lead, KB’s single broke up Strasburg’s no-hit bid, which, at two out in the sixth, was the longest against the Cubs in a postseason game — ever:

Bryant never stopped running as the throw came home, and did a headfirst slide (thought you weren’t doing those anymore, KB!) into second base, called safe on the field. It was close enough that the Nats challenged the play:

That was... really, really close. If the call on the field had been “out,” it probably would have been overturned, but the “safe” call was ruled “call stands.” That hustle on Bryant’s part turned out to be really, really important:

Anthony Rizzo’s line drive was nearly caught by Bryce Harper, but the ball fell in and Bryant scored to make it 2-0.

In the seventh, Russell singled with one out and stole second. Addy isn’t much of a base stealer — just two all year, and just 11 in 403 regular-season games. The Cubs could not bring him home, and oddly enough, that might have been important. Jon Jay was on deck to bat for Hendricks when Baez struck out to end the seventh. If Jay had batted then, sure, the Cubs might have scored another run, but then Hendricks would have been out of the game. With the Cubs bullpen as shaky as it has been recently, I was glad to see Joe Maddon send Hendricks out to throw the seventh, even though he had thrown 92 pitches through six.

“The Professor” continued class by inducing two more weak ground balls to begin the inning. One of those ground balls resulted in this slick play by KB [VIDEO].

That made 12 groundouts of the first 20 outs recorded by Hendricks. He might have been out of the inning on only nine pitches, but Bryant committed a rare error allowing Michael A. Taylor to reach, but Hendricks reached back for the speed he had left and struck out pinch-hitter Howie Kendrick on pitch number 106.

“Sublime” is one of the best words I can think of to describe Hendricks’ outing. If you watched him closely during this game you’d never know whether he was feeling emotion at all. His expression never changes. I’ve rarely if ever seen a major-league player as locked-in as Hendricks was Friday night. Check out some Hendricks postseason numbers:

Jay, who had been waiting to bat for Hendricks in the seventh, instead led off the eighth in that role. And as he did 13 times (.325 PH BA) during the regular season, he delivered a pinch hit, a double to left field. One out later, he advanced to third on a ground out and up came Rizzo[VIDEO].

What a great at-bat by Rizzo. With two strikes, he shortened up, and still got a ball he could drive to the opposite field. His double scored Jay and made it 3-0.

And that left it up to the Cubs’ bullpen. Joe Maddon has obviously drawn up things so that Carl Edwards Jr. will go in the eighth and Wade Davis in the ninth, presuming the Cubs have the lead and the game is shortened to those two innings.

CJ came through against the top of the Nats’ order, striking out Trea Turner, getting Harper to pop up and striking out Rendon.

Oh, that popup by Harper? That’s worth a look [VIDEO].

Javy is so, so good, making that play as if he were just trying to catch a bus that was starting to pull away without him on board. Then he shows off the baseball.

The Cubs did not score in the ninth and now it’s Davis Time. Davis, you should recall, has been here before. This was his first postseason appearance as a Cub, but he had thrown in 23 previous postseason games and got the last out of the 2015 World Series for the Royals. This is a man who, like Hendricks, never betrays emotion on the mound and clearly knows what he’s doing and what the situation requires.

After Davis got Murphy to ground to Baez, he struck out Zimmerman. Willson Contreras couldn’t handle strike three and picked up the ball and threw to Rizzo — and the ball hit Zimmerman squarely in the back.

The umpires did not hesitate. “Out” was the call, and you can see why:

19 years ago, a play quite similar to this happened in Houston as the Cubs were trying to lock down the N.L. wild card. It wasn’t on a strikeout — Dave Clark of the Astros hit a little dribbler that Rod Beck picked up and tried to throw to first... hitting Clark square in the back, just like the play Friday night. And just like Friday night, Clark was ruled out and the Cubs won that game 3-2.

Dusty Baker ran out of the Nats dugout to argue, at least as fast as a 68-year-old man can run (and trust me, I know men in their 60s can’t run very fast). Funny thing, I don’t ever recall seeing Dusty race that quickly out of the Cubs dugout when he was managing them. It didn’t matter — the call was correct and that play is not reviewable. You can clearly see Zimmerman out of the baseline when the throw hits him.

With that kerfuffle out of the way, Davis threw ball one to Jayson Werth and then got him to pop up in foul territory to Contreras and the Cubs had the first game of the series.

It really couldn’t have been drawn up much better. Hendricks was awesome in shutting down the Nats’ powerful offense, and the Cubs took advantage of a fielding error to score all the runs they’d need. Fun fact:

In general, it’s said that all teams without home field advantage in a postseason series need to do is steal one game on the road and they’ll be in good shape when they actually do return home. This is certainly true, but these Cubs showed Friday night why they are the defending World Series champions. They know how to win even when they are facing one of the best pitchers in the game, and have an excellent chance to return home for Monday’s Game 3 up two games to none in this best-of-five series.

Jon Lester will go for the Cubs in Game 2 and Gio Gonzalez takes the mound for the Nats.

#FlyTheW #LetsGo