WASHINGTON -- The Cubs remember all too well how the Mets' pitching shut them down in the National League Championship Series last October. On Monday night, the Nationals' Max Scherzer provided flashbacks to that series.
The Cubs struck out 11 times in Scherzer's seven innings in Monday's 4-1 loss to the Nats. It was a different starter for Washington than the one who served up seven runs over five innings at Wrigley Field on May 6, including four home runs.
"I think he wanted a little payback," Cubs catcher Miguel Montero said of Scherzer. "He made a pretty good adjustment. In Wrigley, he gave up a lot of hard hits, trying to get ahead with the fastball. The guys kind of ambushed him a little bit then. Today, that wasn't the case. He pitched a little bit backwards today. He was able to throw his breaking ball for a strike."
The Cubs do have the best pitching staff in baseball, and their run differential is obscene. But last season, the Cubs swept the Mets in the regular season, and then got swept in the NLCS.
"A lot of pitching, that's what we ran into last year," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "That's what we have to strive to do is at least move the ball and give ourselves a chance."
The Cubs struck out a season-high 16 times on Monday.
Errors don't help either, and the Cubs made two on Monday, including one that led to the Nationals' first run in the third when center fielder Dexter Fowler's throw hit Jayson Werth. Chicago now has committed nine errors in its last three games.
"That's what you'll see when you get two really good baseball teams is you'll see a lot of that close action and it's a battle of inches that permits you to win or lose those games and they won the battle of the inches tonight," Maddon said.
Addison Russell dropped a popup that Maddon said the shortstop catches "101 out of 100 times." Right fielder Jason Heyward nearly robbed Wilson Ramos of a home run with a leaping catch in the sixth -- and the ball deflected off his glove.
But Monday's game came down to pitching. Chicago starter Kyle Hendricks kept the Nationals in check over five innings, and then his balls got up in the zone in the sixth.
This series will test the Cubs. On Tuesday, they will face Gio Gonzalez, and then close the series against Stephen Strasburg, who is unbeaten at 10-0.
"You've got to beat the good pitchers," Maddon said. "In order to win in the playoffs, you have to beat good pitchers. [Scherzer] is one of them. We beat him one time, he beat us this time. In the playoffs, you see good pitching. That's why teams get to the playoffs is they have good pitching. Bottom line, you have to compete against the good ones."
This series features the East and Central Division leaders in the NL. Did it feel like a playoff game?
"I don't know about that," Hendricks said. "It's still June. We have a ways to go. We faced them at home. It's just two good teams facing off at this point. It's good competition, really good baseball. We'll enjoy these next two games."
Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.