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.”