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Loss to Chicago Cubs puts Washington Nationals on brink of another early playoff exit

Loss to Chicago Cubs puts Washington Nationals on brink of another early playoff exit
Cubs second baseman Ben Zobrist scores the tying run against the Nationals in the seventh inning of Game 3 of their National League division series matchup on Oct. 9. (Tannen Maury / EPA)

Stephen Strasburg took a no-hitter into the sixth inning of Game 1 of the National League division series. Max Scherzer took a no-hitter into the seventh inning of Game 3.

The Washington Nationals lost both games. Aces and all, they are one loss from a fourth consecutive first-round flameout.

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In a game perfectly made for second-guessing, the Nationals gave up one run immediately after removing their best pitcher and another when they pitched to the Chicago Cubs' best hitter with an open base.

Those were the only runs they gave up Monday in a 2-1 loss to a Cubs team that committed four errors and scored the winning run on a bloop single.

The Cubs lead the best-of-five series, two games to one. The Nationals face elimination Tuesday.

There is no mystery to the Nationals' flaws. They are batting .121 in the series. The run they scored Monday was not earned.

And yet they still led 1-0 with eight outs to go. They were close to putting Cubs' backs against an ivy-covered wall, with the game in the seventh inning and Scherzer throwing a no-hitter.

His start had been delayed three days because of a hamstring cramp. He had not pitched in two weeks. On his 98th pitch, Ben Zobrist doubled.

The no-hitter was gone, and so was Scherzer. The Cubs were delighted.

"I wouldn't have taken him out, the way he was pitching," Zobrist said. "He was very sharp. In that moment, you've got to believe in your guy that's gotten you six innings the way he did."

Said Scherzer: "I know you guys are probably going to second-guess that. These guys are here to make a decision. When they made that decision, I wasn't going to override anybody."

On deck: Kyle Schwarber, left-handed slugger.

"We thought Max had had enough, especially coming off the injury," Washington manager Dusty Baker said. "I probably couldn't live with myself if Schwarber had hit one out of the park."

Baker opted for left-hander Sammy Solis. In turn, Cubs manager Joe Maddon opted for pinch-hitter Albert Almora.

Almora singled, and Zobrist scored the tying run. Scherzer appeared to fume, hands on hips in the Washington dugout.

In the eighth inning, after a walk and sacrifice bunt, the Cubs had the winning run on second base with two out. First base was open.

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Baker opted for left-hander Oliver Perez to face the left-handed Anthony Rizzo, with Willson Contreras on deck. Rizzo blooped a single, a pop fly that might have been caught had the outfielders not had to play so deep because Rizzo's power demanded it.

Three defenders converged — one from left field, one from center field, one from shortstop. The ball dropped among them all, tantalizingly close to them all, for the game-winning hit. Baker was left to bemoan how conveniently Rizzo had placed the ball.

"You couldn't have thrown a ball in there any better than he did," Baker said.

It was the eighth inning of a tie game, and still Baker chose not to use either of his best relievers, right-hander Ryan Madson or left-hander Sean Doolittle.

"We thought Perez could do the job, and he did the job," Baker said. "It's just that he found a hole."

Of the eight runs the Cubs have scored in the series, Rizzo has driven in five. Baker was asked if he believed Rizzo was a guy who could turn up his game in the playoffs, and the beleaguered manager had heard enough questions about a bleeping bloop hit.

"It's not really turning it on when you bloop one in there," Baker said.

The Nationals, remember, did not have to pitch to Rizzo. They had the open base, and so Rizzo was driven to remove his helmet and shout "Respect me!" in the direction of the Nationals dugout.

"Usually, I keep that stuff behind the scenes, but my emotions got me there," he said. "But, you know, that's the mentality. I believe I'm a really good hitter. I believe I'm one of the best hitters in the game. You have to believe that. You have to believe in that."

Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin

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