CHICAGO -- Before Game 3 of the National League Division Series, Dusty Baker said it was hero time. After Game 3, it’s really hero time.
If the Nationals lose to Chicago on Tuesday, it would mark the fourth time in four tries since moving to D.C. (and the fourth time in the past six years) that they’ve been bounced by a lower-seeded team in the NLDS.
The "hero" Baker was referring to on Monday afternoon was Max Scherzer, who was making his first start since tweaking his hamstring in his final regular-season outing on Sept. 30. And the Nats’ ace was about as heroic as humanly possible. OK, so maybe his performance wasn’t quite Curt Schilling bloody-sock heroic or Madison Bumgarner 2014 heroic, but it was pretty heroic nonetheless.
Facing a potent Cubs offense that ranked second in the National League in scoring and was loaded with lefties on Monday (skipper Joe Maddon sat right-handed hitting Javier Baez in favor of switch-hitter Ben Zobrist), Scherzer didn’t allow a hit through the first six innings. It was the fourth time in 13 career postseason starts that he has had a no-no bid of at least five innings, which is two more than any other hurler in MLB history, according to Elias Sports Bureau research. It was also the second time in the series that a Nats starter held the Cubs hitless through five (Stephen Stasburg did it in Game 1). Oddly enough, Washington lost both of those games. As a result, the Nationals now find themselves one loss away from another long winter. Not that anyone could blame Scherzer.
“For him to cowboy up,” Bryce Harper said, “and do what he’s been doing all year long, he deserves the win. But it just didn’t happen today.”
Maybe it didn’t happen because as good as Scherzer was, Cubs starter Jose Quintana was nearly as good, allowing just two hits and an unearned run, while fanning seven over 5⅔ innings. Maybe it didn’t happen because, on a night when Dusty Baker somehow left his two best relievers unused (Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson), the Cubs' bullpen was more airtight, allowing just a single baserunner over three-plus shutout frames. Maybe it didn’t happen because the suddenly offense-starved Nationals, who are hitting a sickly .121 as a team over the first three games of the series, have forgotten how to score runs. Regardless of the reasons for their Game 3 loss, the bottom line is that with Game 4 lurking and yet another early exit seeming like a distinct possibility, it’s high time for a hero.
“Our back's against the wall,” Baker said after Monday night’s loss.
Although Tuesday’s pitching matchup (Tanner Roark vs. Jake Arrieta) might not seem promising for the Nationals given their do-or-die status, it’s not quite the mismatch that it appears. For all his past success, Arrieta, who won the 2015 Cy Young and won two games during last season’s World Series, hasn’t been the same pitcher this year and is dealing with a hamstring issue of his own that made for a bumpy September (6.10 ERA). Then again, Roark, who was good enough to receive Cy Young votes in 2016 when he went 16-10 with a 2.83 ERA, has had a down year too. But if ever the situation was ripe for him to go hero, it’s Tuesday.
“A guy that you would like on your side if you're in an alley and you're in a fight,” Baker said of Roark on Monday. “He has that warrior mentality.”
It’s a mentality that, in Roark's breakout season last year, helped him outduel some of the game’s top hurlers, including Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto and, as fate would have it, Arrieta. That May 2016 game against the Cubs righty, in which Roark allowed no earned runs in six innings but didn’t factor into the decision, took place at Wrigley Field, about an hour north of where Roark grew up in Wilmington, Illinois. Even better, it came in front of his mom and a host of other family members on Mother’s Day. A year and a half later, he’ll take the mound again in front of his peeps in what could be the biggest start of his life, against the team he grew up rooting for.
“It's pretty surreal to pitch in Wrigley,” said Roark, who is 3-1 lifetime with a 3.24 ERA in the Cubs’ park. “Just the history that they have here and everything. It's very exciting and I'm anxious to get out there.”
Regardless of how Roark fares in Game 4, if Washington’s offense doesn’t start clicking soon, it won’t matter. Outside of the eighth inning in Game 2, when the Nats exploded for a five-spot, they’ve scored just two runs in 25 innings and have combined to go 7-for-84. For the series, Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rendon and Jayson Werth all are hitting .100 or less. Leadoff man Trea Turner is hitting .000 and has yet to reach base, rendering his game-changing speed meaningless. In other words, the Nationals need a hitting hero.
Maybe that hero is Harper, whose dramatic two-run homer tied up Game 2. Maybe it's Zimmerman, whose three-run shot shortly thereafter gave Washington the win. Maybe it’s Murphy or Rendon, both of whom hit over .300 during the regular season. Or maybe it’s somebody completely unexpected.
“I’ve been in a number of these where there are a lot of unlikely heroes,” Baker said last week, referencing the Bucky Dents and Mark Lemkes of postseason lore. “Guys that should be heroes aren’t and guys that you weren’t counting on being heroes are.”
Or maybe there’s no hero at all for Washington. Maybe all the caped crusaders are Cubs, and the Nationals are bound for yet another fall failure. Then again, maybe they’re not. After all, it takes only a pair of victories for them to avoid an all-too-familiar fate.
“We’ve won two games in a row before,” Zimmerman said. “It’s not a record.”