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.”