WASHINGTON — Imagine the anxiety, the drama, the TV ratings if Bryce Harper, Dusty Baker, Stephen Strasburg and the Washington Nationals stood in between the Cubs and their first trip to the World Series since the year World War II ended.
All the national media, Wrigleyville bar owners and Major League Baseball can do is dream about that October matchup after Wednesday night’s back-and-forth game finally ended in the 12th inning when Jayson Werth’s walk-off single banged off the center-field wall at Nationals Park for a 5-4 victory.
“Holy s---!” Werth told MASN on-field reporter Dan Kolko during the postgame interview that echoed throughout the stadium. Werth — who looks like a caveman with that long hair and thick beard — also had a message for anyone who doubted how much he had left at the age of 37: “Those people can kiss my ass!”
It sounded like Washington’s clubhouse leader spoke for his entire team after an intense game that lasted four hours and 17 minutes. The Nationals got payback after last month’s four-game sweep at Wrigley Field, where the Cubs walked Harper 13 times and got inside Washington’s head.
The Nationals (41-25) aren’t going to crown the Cubs, something Baker reminded the media this week, almost sounding like Dennis Green talking about the Bears. The Cubs (44-20) won the season series (5-2), but the Nationals exposed slight cracks in the foundation. And neither team will necessarily be the same after the trade deadline, much less four months from now.
“Maybe an October preview,” said Jason Hammel, who allowed one run and matched the undefeated Strasburg through the first seven innings. “These are the best teams in baseball going at it, exchanging punches.
“It was exciting. We had our chances to do it, and they answered back. That’s what you’re going to get out of two teams that know how (to) create something that’s not there.”
Like Washington pinch-hitter Stephen Drew lining setup guy Pedro Strop’s 94-mph fastball over the right-field wall for an eighth-inning home run that momentarily put the Nationals up 2-1.
Or Anthony Rizzo responding in the ninth inning by destroying a 79-mph pitch from lefty reliever Oliver Perez, the ball slamming off the small scoreboard above the right-field bullpen for a go-ahead two-run homer.
“I guess I will say it — it kind of had that playoff feel (where) you can’t take anything for granted,” Rizzo said. “That was a fun game. It was a crazy game. And the type of games you see in October.”
And then Harper burned Cubs closer Hector Rondon with a leadoff walk in the ninth inning, scoring from second base on Wilson Ramos’ two-out line-drive single into left field. Rondon got five outs and the win in Tuesday night’s 4-3 victory, but that’s now back-to-back blown saves against the Nationals.
“Our bullpen, we feel a little down, but we know that happens at some point in the season,” Rondon said. “It felt like a playoff game, so it’s good for us to get that mentality. We know when we’re there later in the season that we have to figure out how to win against those guys.”
Baker — who once managed the Cubs to within five outs of the National League pennant in 2003 — navigated through 12 innings without injured closer Jonathan Papelbon. But this isn’t just about old history or only 2016, either, because in some ways these are model organizations bursting with young, blue-chip talent that could make this a heated rivalry.
Albert Almora Jr. (age 22) and Addison Russell (age 22) manufactured a run against Washington’s Yusmeiro Petit in the 12th inning, again showing their sense of calm, love for the bright lights and baseball IQ. Almora led off with a single, hustled to second base on a wild pitch and scored on Russell’s clutch single up the middle, putting the Cubs up 4-3.
But Trevor Cahill and Adam Warren, the fifth and sixth relievers out of Joe Maddon’s bullpen, couldn’t get the final three outs, leaving the manager to put a positive spin on it.
“There’s nothing to cry about,” Maddon said. “They beat us. That happens sometimes. And you can’t try to dissect it any further than that. They won.”
After this three-city road trip, the Cubs flew back to Chicago, where they will face the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals, the two teams they eliminated from last year’s playoffs, looking to build double-digit leads on their division rivals during a six-game homestand that begins Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field.
But the Cubs aren’t going to lose sight of the Nationals.
“They know they’re good,” Rondon said. “We’re almost the same kind of team. Hopefully we see those guys next time in the playoffs.”