CHICAGO — The groundskeepers cut the grass here so that large squares stretched from foul line to foul line. They alternated from light to dark, turning the Friendly Confines into an emerald chess board. On Monday afternoon, the respective managers in Game 3 of this National League Division Series took turns knocking over the pieces.
But for all the maneuvering, it was chance that sent the Cubs to a 2-1 victory that shoved the Nationals to the verge of another first-round exit from the postseason.
Anthony Rizzo broke a 1-1 tie in the eighth, with the slugger getting just enough bat on a fastball from lefty Oliver Perez. Rizzo’s two-out flare found a dark square in shallow leftcenter, landing just out of reach from Jayson Werth, Michael Taylor and Trea Turner.
Said Werth: “It’s in no-man’s land.”
Pinch-runner Leonys Martin scored from second. It was the deciding run in a game in which the Cubs faced a dominant Max Scherzer, committed four errors and ran themselves out of a rally with a terrible baserunning blunder — and still won.
Then there was a matter of how the pieces were deployed, leading to Rizzo’s bloop.
Cubs skipper Joe Maddon got trigger-happy, pulling starter Jose Quintana form his first-ever postseason start after Kyle Schwarber dropped a Daniel Murphy fly ball, then accidentally swiped it away with his glove. Murphy got to third, Schwarber got two errors, and Quintana got the hook. He was pulled from scoreless game after 96 pitches, a point he had surpassed in 23 of his 32 starts.
Maddon emerged from the dugout to a chorus of boos, and the encore came moments later when Ryan Zimmerman delivered a double off Pedro Strop to give the Nationals a 1-0 lead.
“I really try to stay with the script that we present before the inning begins,” Maddon said. “I really felt strongly about Strop on Zimmerman.”
But this game wasn’t done tormenting its managers. In the seventh inning, it was Dusty Baker’s turn. Scherzer had not pitched since Sept. 30 because of a right hamstring injury. Game 3 was his first opening to pitch. He was ready.
When Scherzer took the hill in the seventh, he had not allowed a hit and began the frame by striking out Willson Contreras. But Ben Zobrist ripped a one-out double that one-hopped the ivy.
Baker visted the mound. Scherzer had reached 98 pitches, a feat given his injury, but made his case to stay.
“I had all of the adrenaline that I needed,” Scherzer said. “We were all kind of 50-50 about what was going to happen. You kind of look at Wieters. Sometimes, your catcher can kind of be the deciding factor.”
Matt Wieters decided that “Max had done all he could for us.” Baker agreed, summoning lefty Sammy Solis, a move that forced Maddon to pinch-hit for the left-handed hitting Schwarber. Scherzer later offered a full-throated defense of the decision, even after it ended with Albert Almora Jr.’s pinch-hit single off Solis to tie the score.
One inning later, Rizzo’s game-winning blooper gave him his fifth RBI of the series. The Cubs moved one win away from reaching the NLCS for a third straight year. And the Nationals face oblivion, needing Tanner Roark to beat Jake Arrieta in Game 4 Tuesday night to save the season.
“Win the game,” Scherzer said, when asked about the Nationals’ approach to facing elimination. “What else do you want us to do? We’re going to win the game.”