These playoffs have been any which way but normal, but, in a bizarre stroke, things returned to order in Washington, D.C. on Friday night. Both the Nationals and Cubs sent their best, non-dinged starters to the mound in Stephen Strasburg and Kyle Hendricks, and they both pitched…well. The latter took the mound and performed like the guy who earned third-place Cy Young Award votes in 2016. It was a beautiful performance; each pitch darting, dashing, and diving at the last second, earning weak contact and a cavalcade of ground balls. It was a star-level performance and one fans could easily have forgotten, because you can’t see and don’t talk about stars when the sun is out, blazing in all its glory.
Despite the 7 p.m. start, Strasburg lit the night’s sky with his performance. We’re not supposed to stare at the sun, but thankfully they threw some eclipse glasses in front of the camera and those of us willing to hold our gaze were treated to a dazzling display of obscenity that would cause Justice Potter Stewart to admit he’s damn well seen it. He unleashed hellacious curveballs that arced skyward before crashing down in thunderous fashion. His changeups appeared to hit an unseen reservoir of water as they approached the plate, tailing hard arm-side as they did so. His fastball danced over opponents’ bats, as he coaxed whiffs with every element of his arsenal, ultimately striking out 10 over seven innings.
But the sun set at 5 â…” innings. With none out in the sixth, a first-pitch swinging Javy Baez chopped a ground ball along the third base line. Anthony Rendon fielded the ball, but seemed to anticipate it’d be called foul and fumbled the exchange, allowing Baez to reach base.. It was a close play, and probably the pivotal one in the game. The announcing crew seemed to think it was a foul ball but replays didn’t make it exceedingly clear, and Rendon probably should have played through.
Hendricks bunted him to second, and Ben Zobrist flew out innocuously, bringing Kris Bryant to the plate. Twice Bryant had strode to the plate, only to skulk back to the dugout, having been blinded by Strasburg’s display. This time, though, he laced a 96 mph fastball that ran back over the plate into right field, and advanced to second on the throw that was too late to get Baez at home (or Bryant at second). Likewise, Anthony Rizzo, another two-time strikeout victim, turned on a 92 mph two-seam fastball at the top of the zone, floating it into right field and scoring Bryant from second. That was the extent of the damage against Strasburg, a brief sunshower on an otherwise pleasant day, but it was enough to turn daylight into dusk.
With the sun receding, our eyes adjusted to the night sky enough to see Hendricks in his own light. For all the explosive, fiery nature of Strasburg’s pitches, it was Hendricks’ surgical precision that reigned supreme. He routinely backdoored his two-seam fastball to catch the Nationals looking, and induced several swings through his upper-80s fastball. His changeup was an out-pitch, flashing depth that could make the Mariana Trench blush. It’s easy to imagine that the lack of overpowering or aesthetically ostentatious pitches make a dominant outing like Hendricks’ harder to swallow for the Nationals. When Strasburg looks like he did throughout the outing, one simply throws up their hands and says “what can you do?” But Hendricks is baseball’s version of death by a thousand paper cuts; constantly clipping the outer edge with the late movement on his two-seam fastball, laying siege to the bottom of the strike zone with his changeup, all the while generating awkward swings and meek contact from a potent Nationals lineup.
The Nationals/Cubs matchup is, so far, the only game of the postseason that has made it to the third inning without any runs scored. It was, for one night, a return to the natural order. Being a team game full of extraneous players, we're rarely ever treated to a pure duel but the thing about stargazing, what makes it special, is how slow it is; how quiet it gets, to the breaking point of boredom, and the moments that interrupt this stasis provide an unexpected visceral thrill. Strasburg brought plenty of noise and commotion, but it was the patient, peaceful viewer who was ultimately rewarded on Friday night.