Defending champs prepared for top teams, but mistakes turning wins into losses
By Scott Chasen
CHICAGO -- The Cubs could very well see the Nationals again.
It won't be in the regular season -- the teams wrapped up their final series of the season with the Cubs falling, 9-4, at Wrigley Field -- but if the Cubs make the postseason, the Nationals would almost certainly be the team they'd face in the National League Division Series. After Sunday's loss, the Cubs hold a half-game lead over the Brewers in the NL Central.
The seven games against the Nationals this year have proven useful for the Cubs, partly because of the intel they've gathered, but also for what they have revealed about themselves. The Nats claimed the season series, 4-3, including this past tightly contested three-game set.
"We've got plenty of information, that's not the problem. The problem is going out and executing," said Sunday starter Jon Lester. "We were right in those games."
They held an early lead Sunday before mistakes set the stage for a late-inning loss.
The first miscue came in the third inning, with a runner on third, one out and Lester in command. Brian Goodwin hit a fly ball to left that Kyle Schwarber should've handled, but he let it get by him for a run.
"The first play to Kyle, that's a play he makes 101 out of 100 times," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "He might've just tried to get quick with it, because I don't know if the runner could've scored had he caught that ball. I don't know that. He was that close, he has a good arm, I don't even know if the third-base coach would've sent him."
In the seventh, with Lester still on the mound to protect a 4-1 Cubs lead, the left-hander gave up back-to-back doubles to Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon to lead off the frame, the latter of whom ended up at third after a pair of mistakes.
Schwarber fielded the ball off the wall and threw it to Kris Bryant at third, instead of going to second. Bryant quickly tried to relay the throw, but the ball sailed past the bag and into the outfield. Rendon would eventually score on a Matt Wieters sac fly.
"The other play, off the wall, just a throw to the right spot," Maddon said. "That's all that is. It's not real complicated. We just have to throw a ball to the right place."
Jason Heyward was also caught in a rundown between second and third earlier in the game, but the Cubs still held a 4-3 lead going into the eighth inning, and Maddon had his blueprint. Mike Montgomery would get the first two outs and Carl Edwards Jr. would enter, giving him the chance to build up some confidence after a string of shaky outings.
The plan changed when Bryce Harper hit a one-out single to chase Montgomery, and Edwards gave up a double to Ryan Zimmerman to put two in scoring position with one out. Maddon opted to intentionally walk Rendon to give Edwards the chance to get out of the frame with a double play, but the reliever grazed Rendon with a curveball and then gave up a tiebreaking grand slam to Wieters in the next at-bat.
Maddon said after the game it is important to get Edwards back to normal, and that seemed to be a theme across the board. In fact, after losing a second straight series in which they held an eighth-inning lead in the rubber game (the first against the Wild Card-contending D-backs), Lester said exactly that.
"It's not like we're getting blown out by these guys," Lester said. "I don't think we're really too worried. It's just a matter of executing a little bit better."
Scott Chasen is a reporter for MLB.com based in Chicago. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.