NLDS Game 2: Nationals use huge five-run eighth inning to even series with Cubs

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

WASHINGTON, D.C. – For the first 16 innings of the 2017 postseason, the Washington Nationals had carried on a tradition of futility honed, crafted and passed down, like an heirloom no one wants, for eight decades. Saturday marked the 84th anniversary of the last World Series game played in this city, and with one game of the National League Division Series lost to the Chicago Cubs and the second well on its way, history, the one thing Washington, D.C., knows better than anywhere, was repeating itself.

Then came the barrage, out of nowhere, a hit from Adam Lind and thunderbolt from Bryce Harper and walk from Anthony Rendon and single from Daniel Murphy and the coup de grace, a three-run home run from Ryan Zimmerman, the longest-tenured of the Nationals. Gone was the deficit, the specter of a series sweep, all of the accouterments they’d spent those first 16 innings accumulated. It was pure, unadulterated bliss, with a 6-3 victory sparing the Nationals from the indignity of their prior offensive impotence and tying the series at a game apiece.

The home run from Harper off Carl Edwards Jr. evened the game at 3-3 and came two months to the day of his previous one. After missing much of August and almost all of September with a knee injury, Harper’s status coming into the series was questionable. He answered the question with authority.

Zimmerman’s home run meant even more. It was the fourth hit of the inning after Washington had mustered four in the entire series before that, including just a pair in a 3-0 Game 1 loss. It lofted high into the air, hanging for an eternity, tensing the stomachs of the 43,860 in attendance whose nervous silence had served as a soundtrack for much of the game. When the ball barely breached the fence in left-center field, just over the outstretched glove of Ben Zobrist, the place came unglued, with just three outs from closer Sean Doolittle left to vanquish the Cubs.

He locked them down, and Game 3 of the series, set to continue at Wrigley Field on Monday, took on even more meaning. The Nationals will start Max Scherzer, the NL Cy Young favorite whose strained hamstring prevented him from starting either of the first two games. Jose Quintana, the midseason trade acquisition, will go for the Cubs.

Washington Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman dives into third base during the fifth inning in Game 2 of baseball’s National League Division Series against the Chicago Cubs at Nationals Park, Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, in Washington. (AP)

Chicago’s desire is clear: repeat as World Series champions. The Nationals’ is simpler: win a postseason series, something they’ve never done, dating back to 1969, when the franchise debuted as the Montreal Expos. These Nationals have been dogged by a reputation ever since Tim Hudson questioned their testicular fortitude in 2014. They lost to the San Francisco Giants in the division series that year, just as they’d lost to the St. Louis Cardinals two years earlier, just as they’d lose to the Los Angeles Dodgers two years later.

Harper made sure the strains of that narrative would rest for at least one night. Before the game, he spoke about how in Game 1, Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg had made Rizzo and Kris Bryant look silly in their first two at-bats, striking them out two times apiece. In Game 2, Harper went down with a strikeout, then grounded out twice to the shortstop. And it brought to mind something he said hours before the home run that saved the series.

“If you don’t get it done your first at-bat or second at-bat,” he said, “third or fourth at-bat could be huge.”