Bryce Harper

The telltale signs from Jon Lester that Cubs aren’t at all worried about Nationals yet

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USA TODAY

The telltale signs from Jon Lester that Cubs aren’t at all worried about Nationals yet

WASHINGTON – The franchise that gave Bartman a World Series ring and the team that took a selfie with Nacho Man watched some big dude in a white pinstriped Kris Bryant jersey make a one-handed catch in the first row of the right-field seats.

Whether or not manager Dusty Baker’s mind started racing and flashing back to the 2003 Cubs in that fourth-inning moment, the Washington Nationals had to be wondering: What happened to the rocket-launcher lineup that scored 800-plus runs during the regular season? How much does $210 million ace Max Scherzer have left for an elimination game after feeling a “tweak” in his dominant right hamstring? Why do these teams keep underperforming in October over and over again?

And then just when it looked like the Cubs had all the answers on Saturday night at Nationals Park, Bryce Harper slammed Carl Edwards Jr.’s curveball out to right field and into the second deck. Ryan Zimmerman beat Mike Montgomery by lifting a ball over the left-field fence. That bullpen meltdown in the eighth inning flipped a 3-1 lead into a 6-3 loss, ruining a vintage Jon Lester playoff performance in Game 2 and the latest advertisement for Bryzzo Souvenir Co.

“I’ll take C.J. in that situation 10 out of 10 times,” said Lester, dressed in a gray windowpane suit for the flight back to Chicago, where this National League Division Series now becomes a best-of-three matchup. “If they don’t feel any support in this room, then something’s wrong.

“We all got their backs. Hell, we’ve all been there. Whether it’s a starting pitcher or a bullpen guy or whatever, it doesn’t matter. We’ve all been there. We’ve all given up big hits. We’ve all given up big homers. Turn the page.”

Lester’s body language is always telling and you could see it when he escaped a bases-loaded jam in the fifth inning, screaming and shaking violently after striking out Trea Turner swinging. There were enough concerns about Lester’s overall health and late-season struggles that Kyle Hendricks cut in front of the $155 million ace and got the chance to paint a Game 1 masterpiece.

But Lester looked like a three-time World Series champion, allowing only one run on two hits across six innings, walking just two of the 22 hitters he faced, all good indicators for a team anticipating another long run into October, even if the Nationals suddenly have new life.

“I don’t think anybody in this room expected anything else,” Lester said. “They’re a good team. They’ve played well all year. They got a great pitching staff and their bullpen’s doing a hell of a job.

“We knew it was going to be a battle.”

Lester usually warms up the more he talks at his locker, but you could sense the frustrations with his lack of feel and baffling command issues near the end of the regular season, even after beating the St. Louis Cardinals on Sept. 25 at Busch Stadium as the Cubs closed in on another division title.  

While Addison Russell played along after diving into the stands and knocking over a fan’s tray of nachos, Lester took those 15 minutes of fame as another sign of the decline of Western civilization and his throwaway comments, of course, went viral.  

Fast forward to Anthony Rizzo crushing a Gio Gonzalez curveball that hit the railing and landed in the right hand of a Cubs fan from Virginia identified as Sean Thompson, who didn’t really need the camera hanging around his neck.

The TBS broadcast went to split screens: Home Run Dude, Rizzo pacing the visiting dugout and the umpires huddled on the field for a review that lasted 2 minutes and 16 seconds. The sellout crowd booed when the replayed confirmed Rizzo’s two-run homer.

Near the end of a Q&A that lasted more than seven minutes, Lester smiled and started laughing when asked to compare the two plays.  

“I need to clarify something about old Nacho Man here,” Lester said. “I wasn’t saying nothing about him personally. I was saying the fact that people were asking for his autograph and taking pictures and him doing interviews…I have no quarrel with Nacho Man.”    

‘The train’s coming’ now: What were Cubs thinking against Bryce Harper?

‘The train’s coming’ now: What were Cubs thinking against Bryce Harper?

WASHINGTON – Bryce Harper – the Washington Nationals superstar anointed as “Baseball’s Chosen One” on a Sports Illustrated cover when he was only 16 years old – stood at home plate and admired the flight of the ball as it soared out toward the second deck in right field.

Harper stared into the home dugout and flipped the bat up and out of his right hand, the sellout crowd of 43,860 at Nationals Park roaring on Saturday night as the entire feel of this National League Division Series instantly changed. Fireworks went off, the smoke hung in the air and suddenly the Cubs didn’t look so invincible.

With one thunderous left-handed swing, Harper forced a rewrite of any the-Nationals-are-chokers stories, launching Carl Edwards Jr.’s curveball for a game-tying, two-run homer in the eighth inning. Three batters later, Ryan Zimmerman lifted a Mike Montgomery pitch just over the left-field wall for the go-ahead, three-homer that became the exclamation point to a 6-3 win that turned this into a best-of-three series.

“The train’s coming,” Harper said, believing Max Scherzer’s hamstring “tweak” won’t stop him from doing a Cy Young impression on Monday at Wrigley Field. “We’re a great team.”

What were the Cubs thinking?

Winning the World Series last year didn’t stop the first- and second- and third-guessing about Joe Maddon’s decisions, but the manager isn’t going to Wade Davis for five-out saves now. Harper has put up 122 of his 149 career homers and a .952 OPS against right-handers (compared to .783 vs. lefties). Edwards is young, confident and right-handed, the trusted reliever who handcuffed lefty hitters this season (.437 OPS, 31.8 strikeout percentage) and forced Harper to pop out in the eighth inning of Friday night’s Game 1 win.      

“That was the only option,” Maddon said. “That was the right option. C.J. was the right man for the job. Harper is good. C.J. is really good. C.J’s numbers against left-handed hitters are amongst the best in all of baseball.

“I have all the confidence in the world in him. If that happens again, you’re going to see C.J. back out there. He made a bad pitch and the guy didn’t miss it. That’s it. Sometimes that happens. Bryce is good. C.J. is good. Bryce got him.”

We wondered if Harper and Scherzer would be anywhere close to full strength this October and the game-changers the Nationals needed. Harper is still a freak of nature with five homers in only 16 career playoff games – and apparently on time after spending six-plus weeks on the disabled list in August and September with a bone bruise in his left knee.

“You just can’t make a mistake to him,” said Kris Bryant, who’s played with and against Harper since he was a prodigy growing up in Las Vegas. “He’s super-smart. It almost looked like he was sitting curveball on that pitch 3-1. You got to tip your cap to him.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him. I think he’s totally fine. Obviously, playoffs you have a little adrenaline.”

As reporters hovered near his locker, Edwards quietly changed into a faded pink T-shirt, tan-colored jeans and white Air Jordan sneakers. He turned around to meet the press and framed it as a matter of the right pitch in the wrong location, knowing it was gone as soon as it left his hand, only regretting not burying that curveball in the dirt, and looking forward to facing Harper again.

“I just hung it,” Edwards said. “That’s Bryce Harper. He can hit. But I don’t feel like it was his time. I could have made that wrong pitch to anybody and it probably would have been the same thing.   

“It hurts. But we still have two chances to finish this thing off. I hope we can do it at Wrigley.”   

Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo show Nationals why Cubs are the defending champs

Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo show Nationals why Cubs are the defending champs

WASHINGTON – The Cubs killed their identity as loveable losers haunted by goats and black cats at 12:47 a.m. on Nov. 3, 2016 at Progressive Field, beating the Cleveland Indians in an epic World Series Game 7 that would change their lives forever.   

This is who the Cubs are now, the adrenaline junkies addicted to playing aces in front of big crowds on national TV and waiting to see how the Washington Nationals respond to the pressure.  

It didn’t matter that Stephen Strasburg needed only 52 pitches to power through five innings and flirt with a no-hitter on Friday night at Nationals Park. This is exactly what the Cubs had been waiting for during a regular season that at times felt more like a chore.   

That big-game experience and all the little things mattered as the Cubs took control with a 3-0 win that changed the psychology of this best-of-five National League Division Series.

“Last year, it was just like: ‘You guys have to win the whole thing or you’re a failure,’” Bryant said afterward in a relatively tame and quiet visiting clubhouse. “And we did it. But this year, it’s no different. We want to be the last team standing. It’s kind of a cool spot to be with nobody really expecting us to.”

Only the Cubs could play the underdog card when they have two players in the top three for jersey sales in Major League Baseball this season – The Bryzzo Effect – plus Javier Baez at No. 10. But those three pounced on a Washington error after Kyle Hendricks matched Strasburg through five scoreless innings.

A Nationals team that has never won a playoff series came unglued when Anthony Rendon fumbled the hard-hit ball Baez chopped down the third-base line. A textbook bunt from Hendricks – so sneaky good and fundamentally sound in every aspect of the game – moved Baez into scoring position.

Baez set the tone for the entire playoffs last October when his clutch home run off Johnny Cueto landed in the basket fronting the Wrigley Field bleachers, the Cubs winning a 1-0 Game 1 against the even-year San Francisco Giants.

“We trust each other,” Rizzo said. “That’s the big, big thing for us. We know someone is going to come through at some point. (Look at) last year, Game 1. I said it to Javy: ‘History is going to repeat itself. You might have to go deep for us and win 1-0.’”

[MORE CUBS-NATIONALS: The state of Jake Arrieta, Max Scherzer and Cubs’ playoff pitching plans]

The Cubs have that aura, attention to detail and killer instinct now. Bryant – who had “only” 73 RBI during a season that topped last year’s NL MVP campaign in some ways – notched the first hit off Strasburg with two outs in the sixth inning by drilling a 96-mph fastball into right field.

While Baez scored, Bryant alertly hustled on Bryce Harper’s throw and slid headfirst into second base. Rizzo then smashed a line drive that bounced into Harper’s glove as he stumbled onto the grass. Within three pitches, the battle-tested Cubs had scored two unearned runs and silenced the sea of red all around Nationals Park.

“You feel the nerves and all that,” Bryant said. “I just think as the playoffs go on and you play more playoff games, it kind of becomes a little bit easier just to go out and play.”

A Cubs team that already feels like this is playing with house money will now hand the ball to three-time World Series champion Jon Lester on Saturday and – at worst – leave Washington with home-field advantage in a best-of-three matchup where the Nationals have everything to lose.

“We just trust that someone is going to do it,” Rizzo said. “It doesn’t have to be me or Kris or Addie (Addison Russell) or J-Hey (Jason Heyward). No one puts that pressure on (themselves) to make sure: ‘I have to do it.’ It’s not ‘I.’ We know that someone is going to do it.”