WASHINGTON — Other towns have their curses. But few can claim the brand of baseball bitterness that has resided here for 84 seasons, spread over three different franchises.
The Nationals, the latest heirs to this grand tradition, did little to shed that baggage on Friday. Stephen Strasburg fulfilled all the hype that has defined his career, taking a no-hitter into the sixth inning, but the Nationals lost to the Cubs, 3-0, in the opener of their National League Division Series, their undoing hastened by an error by one of their surest-handed defenders, Anthony Rendon.
In these zero-gravity playoffs, Strasburg engaged in a refreshing pitchers’ duel with Kyle Hendricks, his less-electrifying counter part. But Rendon’s error in the sixth led to a two-run rally for the Cubs, who began their title defense by stoking the insecurities of a franchise that has never advanced past the first round of the playoffs.
“You have to do the little things right and take advantage of the breaks — like they did,” Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.
Until Friday night, Strasburg’s postseason legacy was that he barely had one at all. He was infamously deprived of the chance for October stardom in 2012 when the club invoked an innings limit on his fragile arm. Last postseason, he was a spectator because of a partially torn pronator tendon. His only playoff start came in 2014, a loss in the first game of the NLDS against the Giants. He gave up two runs, one earned, in five innings. The outing was described by the local press as “solid yet unspectacular.”
Against the Cubs, Strasburg quickly established that he would be anything but ordinary. He needed only eight pitches — seven strikes — to turn away the Cubs in the first inning. By the time he took the mound in the sixth, he already had established a franchise single-game record for strikeouts (eight at that point; he finished with 10). The only baserunner reached on a walk.
But despite his best efforts, Strasburg couldn’t control what transpired behind him.
The sixth inning began when Javy Baez reached on an uncharacteristic gaffe by third baseman Rendon, who lost the handle on a routine grounder. Baez advanced on a sacrifice bunt by Hendricks, who tossed seven shutout innings.
Strasburg got Ben Zobrist to fly out, but the Cubs flashed their championship mettle. They would not miss their only chance to take advantage of the opening presented by Rendon.
Kris Bryant lashed a 97-mph fastball to rightfield, giving the Cubs their first hit and their first run. Anthony Rizzo followed moments later with another run-scoring single.
“We’re all humans here,” said Strasburg, who allowed two unearned runs in seven innings. “I tried to do my best to pick him up. I just couldn’t do it.”
With that, Nationals Park fell to hushed tones as a harsh realization dawned upon the red-clad throng of 43,898. Strasburg had been saved all those years ago for a moment precisely like this and had answered the call with dominance. The silence here revealed that it wasn’t enough.