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Nationals Waste Masterful Performance by Stephen Strasburg in Game 1

In the postseason everything is magnified. Every pitch, swing, out, missed opportunity, exchange, bobble, and mistake becomes a game-defining moment. In Game 1 of their best-of-five National League Division Series with the Chicago Cubs, the Washington Nationals had too many mistakes and too many missed opportunities. Meanwhile, the Cubs understood the moment and made every pitch, every swing, and every out count in their favor.

The crowd was great at Nationals Park. They were full of anticipation of a franchise turning their postseason misfortunes around. Early on it seemed that way with their co-ace Stephen Strasburg on the mound. He stifled the vaunted Cubs offense for five innings. That is until the sixth inning when mistakes mounted souring the crowd into a somber mood.

1. Fair of Foul, Rendon’s Error Proved Critical

Strasburg was in route to a masterful performance when Javier Baez hit a chopper down the third base line. It looked foul, but third base umpire Laz Diaz called it fair. Fair or not, it didn’t matter, Rendon bobbled it and could not get it out of glove, allowing Baez to reach first.

That moment started the wheels to fall off for the Nationals. Following a sacrifice by Cubs’ starter Kyle Hendricks to move Baez to second and fly out by Ben Zobrist, Strasburg got ahead of 0-2 on Kris Bryant. However, he left the next pitch in the swing level of Bryant — catcher Matt Wieters wanted it up high to change his eye level. Bryant ripped the ball to right center, scoring Baez.

Harper misfired on the cut-off throw. The throw sailed into the infield, allowing Bryant to reach second base. The next batter, Anthony Rizzo, who had struck out twice before, lifted a 0-1 pitch into right to score Bryant. Just like that the Cubs seized the moment and went up 2-0.

The energy and excitement was zapped out of the ballpark for the hometown faithful. The complexion of the game was completely changed. And while the game had 3.5 innings remaining, the Nationals had 12 outs left, the damage had been done. Both runs were unearned.

Was it fair or foul? Some may argue it was a bad call by Diaz, but the fact does not change, Rendon’s apparent lazy effort cause the Nationals the momentum. After the game, the Nationals third baseman admitted he did not know whether the chopper was fair or foul. However, he accepted the blame for what happened afterwards.

Rendon had played masterful throughout the second half defensively. His last error at third came back on July 22. Bad timing, bad luck? No. Just everything in the postseason magnifies. That chopper seemingly came 100 miles per hour faster. Rendon’s thoughts weren’t up to par, and the gaffe turned the tide of the game. It can happen to anyone. Unfortunately, it just seems that mistakes like that only happen to the Nationals this time of year.

2. Nationals’ Bats Silenced

The Nationals finished the season with the third-best batting average in the National League (.267). However, the Nationals bats cooled off towards the end of the season. In the final month of the season, they had a team slash of .240/.311/.401. It is easy to chalk the slimmed numbers to the laundry list of injuries they dealt with. But there was a feeling September (and Oct. 1) was a precursor to where the team was currently at.

In Game 1, they looked like they were still in September. The team mustered just two hits — a one-out single by Bryce Harper in the first and a two-out single by Michael Taylor in the second. That was it for the Nationals, who did not record a hit for the final seven innings.

While the Cubs had its top of the order deliver, the Nationals’ version did not. The Nationals top five hitters went a combined 1-for-18. The quintet of Trea Turner, Harper, Rendon, Daniel Murphy, and Ryan Zimmerman were put on ice by the clever Hendricks. Hendricks stifled the Nationals with great pitch placement, staying out of the strike zone for the most part.

The Nationals never figured him out. Hendrick grounded them literally, as 12 of the Nationals 15 swings in play were grounders. Hendricks also added six strikeouts. As Strasburg threw flames, Hendrick threw water balloons and the Nationals failed to bust any of them.

Their woeful display was eerily like the 2014 playoffs and how they finished the 2016 playoffs. They went 0-for-2 with runners in scoring position. To be fair there weren’t many instances in which they had the opportunities to move a runner in scoring position. They only tallied two total bases. If the Nationals are to get back in the series, they will have to muster more offense. They are fully capable on talent, but it’s October and historically, October ices their bats.

3. Strasmas In October

Rendon’s error, one bad pitch placement, and a stifled offense ruined a masterful performance from Strasburg. Getting the call for Game 1 with co-ace Max Scherzer nursing a hamstring injury, Strasburg wheeled and dealt the Cubs whiffs and donuts for five innings. In the process he recorded the Nationals’ postseason franchise record with 10 strikeouts.

After every missed opportunity on offense, Strasburg stood on the mound and kept the emotions in check. He dominated for much of the night until one gaffe led to costly two runs in the sixth. He finished the night pitching seven innings, allowing no earned runs and walking one on 81 pitches.

But that’s how baseball goes, Strasburg took the loss and the Nationals squandered a gem of a night by the 2010 No. 1 pick.

4. Season lies in the hands of Gio Gonzalez

Gio Gonzalez is coming off his best season since 2012 with a 2.96 ERA. An NL Cy Young candidate, Gonzalez was bound to pitch Game 2 with the way skipper Dusty Baker wanted to set up his rotation. However, the perception was his start would follow Scherzer and a 1-0 lead. That is not the case no longer.

After the Nationals wasted Strasburg’s gem, they will try to pick up the pieces on Saturday and even the series at 1 or else face a 0-2 series deficit going to Chicago. Gonzalez has a history of being all over the place. But, the Nationals are not in the position of another fickle Gio.

With that said, Washington’s season lies in the hands of Gonzalez. And with the display from the offense in Game 1, that statement may be ever so concerning.

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