CHICAGO — Baseball is constructed on torment and the management of it that follows. The most successful in the sport fail with an alarming frequency that would be unacceptable in any other line of work.
Outcomes are decided by the installation of flower boxes and breeze or a jammed pop-up that lands between two of the fastest people in the league. A baseball field, at times, can feel like the devil’s playground.
That kind of soul-stirring vibe echoed through ancient Wrigley Field early Monday evening.
Chicago Cubs strongman Anthony Rizzo hit a pop-up that started as a benign event and ended with roars and gasps. It landed in shallow left center field between three Washington Nationals defenders, including shortstop Trea Turner, the fastest man on the team, and center fielder Michael A. Taylor, who cedes he cannot beat Turner in a short race but may win a longer one.
The pop-up brought in pinch-runner Leonys Martin. It put the Cubs ahead by the winning margin, 2-1, and pulled their series lead to the same doubled-up spot. Washington is again on the edge of postseason elimination in the best-of-five National League Division Series, trailing 2-1 with Game 4 Tuesday, undone by something no one was sure could be prevented.
“This game can be great, this game can be bad,” Max Scherzer said.
When Rizzo’s pop-up was in the air, a few things became clear. Reliever Oliver Perez had beaten Rizzo with the pitch. The contact from the Chicago Cubs‘ most potent left-handed hitter was weak. Most of the time, such a relationship between the ball and bat would produce an out.
“When I saw the ball, I saw he didn’t hit it that well,” Perez said. “Normally in those situations, the outfield is way back. So when I saw the people started yelling.”
Also crystallizing was the fact that Rizzo’s pop-up was heading for harrowing territory. Turner was running out with his back turned. Taylor was sprinting in. Left fielder Werth was on the run, too, but the ball was falling from the autumn sky at an alarming rate.
Taylor’s thoughts about diving were countered by his concern of piling into a teammate who had made it to the spot. He realized that Turner was not going to be able to camp under the ball. He also realized he was too late.
“Once I see that [Turner] is looking at the ball straight over his head, kind of extended a little bit, then I think one of us has to take a shot right there,” Taylor said. “I always want the ball, so, I wish I would have dove. It’s tough when that ball drops and we’re all standing on our feet like that.”
Werth thought Turner had the best chance. He also knew that no one called for it, and, if they had, the 42,445 screaming in Wrigley Field would have drowned it out anyway. Werth questioned afterward if he had a better shot at the ball than he thought in the moment.
“It’s one of the drop balls that, it’s tough, because I felt like I really didn’t have a chance at it,” Werth said. “Then I went back and looked and maybe I did.”
Rizzo was eliminated in a rundown after the play. The late lead put Cubs closer Wade Davis on the mound. He quickly finished the game, erasing the dominant work of Scherzer’s start (6⅓ innings, one earned run, one hit, three walks and seven strikeouts) and assuring Rizzo’s blooper will hold up in Cubs‘ lore.
Much of the weight of Rizzo’s hit resides with the Nationals’ hitters. Washington has played 27 innings. They scored five runs in the eighth inning of Game 2. They have scored two runs in the other 26 innings. Turner is yet to reach base from the leadoff spot. Cleanup hitter Daniel Murphy is 1-for-11 in the series. That lack of offense makes this statistic possible: Over the course of two starts in the series, Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg have combined to allow one earned run, four hits and struck out 17 in 13⅓ innings. Neither has a win.
Earlier in the day, the gap in left-center field had been a place of betrayal for the Nationals. Anthony Rendon hit a deep fly ball in the third inning to the warning track in that area, but Jason Heyward had taken a clear and swift route to track it down with two on and two out. Matt Wieters hit a fly ball there an inning later that Chicago center fielder Jon Jay sprinted after. Jay reached at the peak of his run to grab it. Again, it was the third out with a runner in scoring position.
“I knew from BP today that the wind was kind of cutting it down that way and taking it to left,” Wieters said. “So I thought it was going to get held up and it didn’t.”
A crack came in the sixth. Murphy had reached third base because of a butchered play in left field and a pregame decision by Cubs manager Joe Maddon. Kyle Schwarber was inserted into Monday’s lineup because he swings from the left side. Left-handers have a much better chance — though, it’s still not a great one — against Scherzer. That inclined Maddon to pick offense over defense. The decision put Murphy on third, ended the day for Cubs starter Joe Quintana and brought Ryan Zimmerman to the plate.
There is a majestic photo of Zimmerman from Saturday night’s series-altering eighth inning in Game 2. He is trotting toward first base with both arms straight out just after his fly ball became a go-ahead three-run homer. First base coach Davey Lopes has his arm raised as Zimmerman approaches. It is arguably the biggest hit in Zimmerman’s one-stop career with the Nationals.
Monday, Zimmerman hit a 1-0 pitch from Cubs reliever Pedro Strop into that previously ungenerous gap. It landed beyond Jay and Heyward. Murphy came from third with ease. Zimmerman stopped at second. The Nationals led, 1-0.
That lead went away in the seventh. Pinch-runner Leonys Martin scored on a single off reliever Sammy Solis by Albert Amora Jr.. Nationals manager Dusty Baker had decided to replace Scherzer, who was pitching after a hamstring injury pushed him to Game 3, with Solis after Scherzer struck out Willson Contreras and allowed his first hit of the day, a double to Ben Zobrist.
“We thought Max had had enough, especially coming off the injury,” Baker said.
An inning later, Rizzo’s bloop changed everything. Game 4 is Tuesday, at a yet to be determined time, in Wrigley Field. The defending champions are a game from advancing. The Nationals are nine innings from another sigh-filled postseason filled with too many reminders of baseball’s viciousness.
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