MLB.com Columnist

Mark Feinsand

Repeat? Cubs are defending champs for reason

Repeat? Cubs are defending champs for reason

WASHINGTON -- As Willson Contreras squeezed the final out into his glove Friday night, he let loose with an animated fist pump, celebrating the Cubs' 3-0, Game 1 win over the Nationals in the National League Division Series.

One down, 10 to go. At least that's the expectation inside the Cubs' clubhouse.

Game Date Matchup TV/Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 6 CHC 3, WSH 0 WATCH
Gm 2 Oct. 7 WSH 6, CHC 3 WATCH
Gm 3 Oct. 9 CHC 2, WSH 1 WATCH
Gm 4 Oct. 11 WSH 5, CHC 0 WATCH
Gm 5 Oct. 12 CHC 9, WSH 8 WATCH

These aren't your parents' Cubbies any more. The "Lovable Losers" are history. Instead of, "Wait 'til next year," Joe Maddon and his players have a swagger that screams, "Get out of our way!"

So while Stephen Strasburg was brilliant Friday night, it was Kyle Hendricks, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant who had the last laugh in the Cubs' victory in the opener of the NLDS presented by T-Mobile.

For five innings, this looked like it would be the October performance everybody has waited for from Strasburg, ever since his memorable 14-strikeout debut in 2010. He had thrown a grand total of five postseason innings in his career, sidelined by injury and innings limits, but Game 1 was shaping up to be his long-awaited coming-out party.

As he took a no-hitter into the sixth inning, he had walked only one batter and set a new single-game postseason franchise record with his eighth strikeout, on his way to 10.

"He was the best pitcher I've seen, probably," said Rizzo, who accounted for two of Strasburg's 10 K's. "Basically, our whole lineup looked silly the first couple times through."

The only thing Strasburg didn't have was a lead.

Shop for Cubs postseason gear

That's because Hendricks, who is hardly a household name despite his brilliant NL Championship Series performance against Clayton Kershaw last year and a Game 7 starting assignment against the Indians in the biggest baseball game ever played, was even better.

"Their guy was that good; so was our guy," Maddon said. "Eventually, you just look for the opening."

That opening finally came in the sixth when Anthony Rendon -- one of the most reliable defensive third basemen in the game -- made a rare error on Javier Baez's hard-hit ball down the line. A sacrifice bunt and fly ball left Strasburg only one out away from an escape, but Bryant -- who had struck out in each of his first two at-bats -- ended both the no-hit bid and the shutout with one swing, singling in Baez for the game's first run.

Rizzo added a second run-scoring hit, turning a no-hitter into a 2-0 lead in the blink of an eye.

Rizzo on timely hitting in win

The first five innings would have frustrated some teams, causing them to chase bad pitches or try to do too much. Not the Cubs. If last October taught them anything, it's patience and the belief that no obstacle is too big -- even an ace such as Strasburg throwing the game of his life.

"We trust each other; that's the big, big thing for us, is that we know someone is going to come through at some point," Rizzo said. "We just trust the next guy.

"We have a feeling that someone is going to do it; it doesn't have to be me, it doesn't have to be Kris, it doesn't have to be Javy, [Addison Russell] or [Jason Heyward]. It's going to be one of us. No one puts that pressure on them to make sure, 'I have to do it.' It's not I, I; we know that someone is going to do it."

Hendricks carried his shutout through seven innings, turning the ball over to Carl Edwards Jr. and Wade Davis, who locked down the win.

Edwards Jr. hurls perfect 8th

This game displayed everything the Cubs have to offer: solid starting pitching, a trustworthy back of the bullpen, stellar fielding, an opportunistic offense and a confidence that can only be found in a team that has already climbed to the top of the mountain.

Remind me why the Cubs have been considered underdogs? Have people simply not been paying attention?

For all the hoopla of their uneven season, the Cubs showed Friday that they're still the Cubs. Until somebody takes their title away from them, they should be considered the most dangerous team in the postseason.

Then again, having experienced last October's pressure-packed march to their goat-busting title, they seem to be relishing their new role.

"It helps being an underdog and not expected to win the whole thing," Bryant said. "Last year, it was, 'You guys have to win the whole thing or else you're a failure.' This year, we want to be the last team standing and that's kind of a cool spot to be, with nobody expecting us to."

The series is far from over. The Nationals have Gio Gonzalez and Max Scherzer lined up for the next two games, and with a .619 winning percentage this season in their starts, they feel pretty confident. At least as confident as a team can be going up against this Cubs team, which has shaken off its funk to win 16 of its past 20 games.

"It's the same players there that were there last year," Nationals catcher Matt Wieters said. "They're going to be tough."

That anybody ever thought otherwise seems pretty foolish.

Mark Feinsand, executive reporter for MLB.com, has covered the Yankees and MLB since 2001 for the New York Daily News and MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.