It sometimes feels unfair, in the way that a child might argue ownership over the TV remote because she was only gone for a second to use the bathroom and she was definitely still watching American Ninja Warrior—shut up Kevin!—that baseball is decided purely by whomever has more runs at the end of a predetermined number of innings. It doesn’t matter how long you held onto the remote. It doesn’t matter that you used the remote first. It doesn’t matter that you deserve the remote more, that the other team got to control the remote at least twice as long as you did the last time you watched TV and now they won’t give it back, mom!
It doesn’t even matter that Kevin got his third remote last year and you haven’t gotten one of your own in what feels like 48 years. All that matters is that, by the end of the night, you’re the last one left holding it. On Monday, the Nationals got to the remote first.
Max Scherzer was four innings deep in his last regular-season start when he landed awkwardly on his right leg. He recovered to strike out Starling Marte, but was quickly removed from the mound and diagnosed with a minor right hamstring strain, just serious enough to cast a faint pall over the club as they transitioned into the postseason. Scherzer had weathered neck inflammation, first on his right side, then his left, and sustained bruising on his left calf after taking a nasty comebacker from Travis Shaw, but now it was crunch time and there were no more 10-day disabled list trips to be taken with the Cubs lining up for another go at the championship.
Still, the Nationals had Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez set for Games 1 and 2 of the NLDS, but then Strasburg’s 5 2/3 no-hit innings fizzled out with Kris Bryant’s sixth-inning RBI single and the Cubs gained a 1-0 advantage to lead the series. During Game 2, Gonzalez allowed three runs in five innings and reaped the benefit of his excellent season-long run support after Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman blasted the Nationals to a 1-1 tie.
So when Scherzer passed Friday’s bullpen session with flying colors, it was of some relief to a rotation that had found few moments to exhale. The ace looked cool and confident on the mound, twirling 6 2/3 hitless innings for the longest no-hit session in Nationals postseason history. He chipped away at the outer layer of the strike zone with his fastball and battled through seven pitches before he caught Kyle Schwarber looking. He danced around the heart of the order in the second inning and returned in the fourth a little worse for wear, pitching in and out of a jam after Trea Turner’s throwing error granted the Cubs their first runner in scoring position.
The Nationals reached for the remote and grasped it firmly. For 98 pitches, no one else dared change the channel.
On a day in early April, the season still fresh and new beneath our feet, an error feels harmless, laughable even. We can gently chuckle at the double play bobbled at third base or the ball inadvertently kicked into the ivy; we can spare a guffaw for the late summer afternoon when the Mariners gifted the Yankees with five errors in the first inning, paving the way to a foreseeable 10-1 defeat.
When the playoffs roll around, however, errors are anything but comical. The image of Bill Buckner grasping for a ground ball is still fresh in our minds; less clear, but no less horrifying, is the story of Giants catcher Hank Gowdy, who inexplicably caught his foot in his mask and missed a crucial pop-up that later allowed Muddy Ruel to collect the winning run in the 1924 World Series.
The Cubs committed four errors on Monday. One error can devastate a series; four errors not only tempts fate, but threatens untold destruction. The first came in the third inning, when Jose Quintana lobbed a pickoff throw over to first base and missed Michael Taylor by a mile. Several at-bats later, Ben Zobrist put Bryce Harper on first base after botching a routine grounder to second. Try as they might, the Nationals couldn’t capitalize on the blunders, and Quintana wiped the basepaths clean with an inning-ending fly out from Anthony Rendon.
The third and fourth errors—arguably the costliest of the night—came in the sixth. Kyle Schwarber tracked a fly ball from Daniel Murphy into the left field corner, but it bounced just shy of his glove and he kicked it down the warning track and into center field while Murphy ran around to third base. The gaffe signaled the end of Quintana’s outing, but Pedro Strop had no better luck against Ryan Zimmerman, who lined a double into right field to score Murphy for the Nationals’ first run of the game.
In the end, though, it didn’t matter how many errors the Cubs committed.
Moments after Zobrist shattered Scherzer’s no-hitter with a line-drive double, moments after Dusty Baker pulled his ace for Sammy Solis and Joe Maddon pulled Schwarber for Albert Almora Jr., the Cubs broke through with a game-tying RBI single.
Brandon Kintzler replaced Solis in the seventh, and Oliver Perez replaced Kintzler in the eighth, and no matter how many relievers Baker inserted, none of them managed to replicate Scherzer’s poise and dominance. Anthony Rizzo plucked a first-pitch sinker from the middle of the zone and postmarked it to center field to plate the winning run.
Baseball doesn’t always reward the teams with the most compelling backstories or the longest World Series droughts or the fewest errors or the best players. At the end of the day, it’s only the runs that matter, notwithstanding the precision of the no-hit bid or the ingenuity of the infield shift in an extra-inning nail-biter. The Nationals will get another turn on Tuesday night, when their madcap dash for the remote will end in heartbreak or jubilation as they try to survive their fifth attempt at a Division Series victory. Maybe this time, if they just clutch the remote tightly enough, if they refuse to leave the couch for any reason, if Kevin keeps committing more errors than runs, they’ll win.