In a town that likes a good debate, Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks settled one that simmered all summer in Chicago.
Hendricks established himself as the indisputable ace of the Cubs in a 3-0 victory Friday night over the Nationals in Game 1 of the National League Division Series, outdueling Stephen Strasburg at Nationals Park in an entertaining contrast of styles.
Well, it was only entertaining from the Cubs perspective. For the Nationals, a team that never has advanced past the first round of the playoffs, the loss was devastating. Demoralizing. Pick any synonym for gut-wrenching out of your Thesaurus.
The guy they call The Professor educated America about the finer points of pitching while Strasburg countered with force, one power pitch at a time. Hendricks' typical fastball topped out at 90 mph – or the same speed as Strasburg's changeups. But Hendricks changing speeds and hitting locations kept hitters guessing and the Nationals only managed two hits in seven innings against the Cubs' reserved right-hander.
After every inning, Hendricks deliberately walked off the mound toward the dugout like someone trying to commit something to memory, exhibiting the composure that made this performance so hard to forget. It came 11 months after Hendricks started Game 7 in the World Series – two straight playoff starts in Cubs history – and while the calendar changed, he did not. This was the kind of poise and precision the Cubs had to have on a night Strasburg supplied nasty, no-hit stuff through 5 2/3 innings.
Good teams take advantage of mistakes and that's what the Cubs did in the sixth inning after Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon misplayed Javier Baez's ground ball for an error. After Hendricks helped himself bunting Baez to second, Kris Bryant came through in the clutch the way MVPs do. Bryant was in front of two straight changeups he fouled down the third base line. Then, on an 0-2 pitch, Bryant laced a single into right-center field that scored Baez with the game's first run as the dugout erupted with a mixture of joy and relief. When Anthony Rizzo followed with a line drive in front of right fielder Bryce Harper, Bryant crossed the plate to give the Cubs a 2-0 lead that seemed insurmountable given how well Hendricks was pitching.
The Cubs won 1-0 in the first game of the 2016 playoffs on their way to a World Series title and this 3-0 shutout to open the 2017 postseason was just as crackling good in terms of pitching, defense and timely hitting.
Manager Dusty Baker spoke pregame about wanting to keep the pressure on the Cubs but it all falls at the feet of his Nationals now that they have lost a home playoff game with Strasburg looking strong. Game 2 Saturday represents a must-win for a Nationals team that has done nothing in October to think it can beat the Cubs three straight games.
With the dome of the U.S. Capitol building part of a cool view from the press box, the most highly anticipated Nationals playoff game in years included pregame elements of patriotism and poignancy. U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, the House Republican whip who was shot and seriously wounded in June at a congressional baseball team practice, hobbled out to the grass right in front of the pitcher's mound to throw out the first pitch. Scalise's perfect strike followed a strong delivery by Las Vegas natives Bryant and Harper, who appeared together on the giant video board to urge everyone to donate to www.clarkcountynv.gov for the victims of the shooting massacre in their hometown.
Earlier in the day, Maddon surprised nobody by tweaking the Cubs lineup before a playoff game. He can't help himself. After 162 regular-season games, suspense still surrounded the release of the Cubs' lineup Friday afternoon, moments that Maddon relishes. You imagined Joe the mad genius chuckling as he wrote Jason Heyward's name into center field, where Heyward started only 12 games all season. Moving the Gold Glove right fielder over made room for Ben Zobrist, who entered 2 for his last 20, and gave left fielder Kyle Schwarber help in left field.
But to hear Maddon explain his Maddon-ness, offense inspired his lineup maneuvering more than defense.
"It's hard to string a bunch of hits together against a guy like Strasburg," Maddon said. "You've all been watching the different games going on right now. Power has been playing a big part in this."
So Maddon gave Schwarber the nod over Jon Jay, the dependable .296-hitting veteran who contributed a pinch-hit double. And Schwarber struggled to make contact against Strasburg. In fairness, Ryne Sandberg in his prime would have struggled against Strasburg as dominant as he was early in Game 1.
Lucky for the Cubs, Hendricks was as efficient as Strasburg was overpowering. Both aces were good enough that, if you thought starting pitching would decide this series, both teams still like their chances. The Nationals will cling to the hope Baker sold before the game confirming Max Scherzer will pitch Game 3 Monday at Wrigley Field after being pushed back because of a sore hamstring.
But if the Cubs can beat Strasburg at his best, they believe they can beat anybody. They think the regular season meant nothing and they're on their way again.
And after taking a 1-0 lead in the NLDS in this manner, who can blame them?
ABOUT THE WRITER
David Haugh is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.