Nats fall in this bat­tle of ti­tans

As po­ten­tial ty­ing run, Harper fans to end game

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY JORGE CASTILLO

chicago — The Wrigley Field faith­ful, nearly 42,000 peo­ple on a sun-kissed Satur­day af­ter­noon, rose to their feet in uni­son as the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als’ No. 3 hit­ter be­gan his walk from the on­deck cir­cle. They all rec­og­nized the mo­ment’s mag­ni­tude. They were watch­ing a mar­quee matchup they will see again in early Oc­to­ber — if the stand­ings hold over the next two months — boil down to one heavy­weight bat­tle: all-star slug­ger Bryce Harper against all-star closer Wade Davis in the ninth in­ning of a three-run game with two on and two outs.

Last year, the Chicago Cubs re­fused to pitch to Harper at Wrigley, walk­ing him 13 times and hit­ting him with a pitch another time over a four-game se­ries. But they are pitch­ing to the slug­ger this week­end, and he had al­ready taken ad­van­tage way back in the first in­ning, when he smashed a John Lackey fast­ball into the video board down the right field line for a home run. The Cubs’ strat­egy re­mained un­changed in the ninth, and Harper, rep­re­sent­ing the ty­ing run, was look­ing for a sec­ond one.

“I’m just try­ing to hit a homer,” Harper said, “tie it up a lit­tle bit and go ex­tras and roll the dice.”

That did not hap­pen, though, be­cause Harper fouled off the two strikes Davis threw him be­fore swing­ing through a curve­ball down and out of the zone. It con­cluded a 7-4 Na­tion­als loss.

“We thought we had a great chance of snatch­ing that game away from them,” Na­tion­als Man­ager Dusty Baker said.

A come­back was re­quired be­cause Wash­ing­ton starter Ed­win Jack­son floun­dered in the first in­ning be­fore re­vers­ing course, and a cou­ple of in­cum­bent mem­bers of the Na­tion­als’ over­hauled bullpen spoiled Jack­son’s dom­i­na­tion from in­nings two through

five.

The Cubs im­me­di­ately cap­i­tal­ized af­ter Jack­son de­parted with Chicago lead­ing 4-3. Will­son Con­tr­eras crushed Matt Grace’s third pitch of the day for a two-run home run in the sixth in­ning, which con­cluded with Na­tion­als catcher Matt Wi­eters get­ting ejected by home plate um­pire Chad Whit­son for cri­tiquing Whit­son’s strike zone.

“He pretty much al­ready gave me a warn­ing to quit ar­gu­ing balls and strikes,” Wi­eters said. “I was more ar­gu­ing that they had a dif­fer­ent strike zone than we had . . . . Our left-handed hit­ters were get­ting some pitches called that were off the plate to them, and we had a cou­ple pitches that last in­ning that we didn’t get that were re­ally close, if not strikes.”

Chicago then man­u­fac­tured a run in the sev­enth against Matt Al­bers for additional in­sur­ance. Four Cubs re­liev­ers, mean­while, com­bined to yield one un­earned run over four in­nings as Chicago (58-51) snapped a three-game los­ing streak and evened the sea­son se­ries with the Na­tion­als (64-44) at three.

It had been nearly three years since Jack­son made his last start on the North Side as a ma­ligned piece of the Cubs’ ro­ta­tion. Satur­day rep­re­sented an op­por­tu­nity, even if he wouldn’t say it, to ex­act some re­venge on an or­ga­ni­za­tion whose pres­i­dent bla­tantly re­marked that sign­ing Jack­son was “a mis­take” — while Jack­son was still on the Cubs’ ros­ter with two years re­main­ing on his con­tract.

“That may be hyped up more by other peo­ple,” Jack­son said. “For me, it’s another team. The ob­jec­tive is the same: go out, give us a chance to win.”

For four in­nings Satur­day, Jack­son dis­played the tal­ent that com­pelled Theo Ep­stein to give him a four-year, $52 mil­lion deal five win­ters ago af­ter Jack­son spent the 2012 cam­paign in Wash­ing­ton. He was over­whelm­ing with a fast­ball in the mid-90s, his off-speed stuff still boast­ing so much life a month shy of his 34th birth­day. He al­lowed one hit, struck out seven and didn’t walk a bat­ter in those four score­less frames. But the stretch ar­rived too late, af­ter a dis­as­trous four-run first in­ning.

The Cubs wel­comed Jack­son back with back-to-back dou­bles — from Jon Jay and Kris Bryant — to tie the game two bat­ters into the bot­tom of the first. Two bat­ters later, Con­tr­eras hit a per­fectly placed drib­bler down the third base line. By the time Jack­son picked up the base­ball, Bryant was cross­ing home plate and Con­tr­eras was a cou­ple steps from reach­ing first. Jack­son ate it. 2-1.

Two bat­ters af­ter that, Alex Avila pro­vided the big blow: a tworun home run, just beyond the wall and into the bas­ket in left­cen­ter field, to make it 4-1. It was Avila’s first home run since the Cubs ac­quired him from the Detroit Tigers on Mon­day.

Jack­son didn’t yield another run as he com­pleted his fourth start as a National this sea­son with eight strike­outs and no walks. But that 31-pitch first in­ning even­tu­ally forced Baker to re­move him af­ter five in­nings with his pitch count at 101.

The Cubs led 7-4 en­ter­ing the ninth, and Davis got pinch hit­ter Howie Ken­drick to ground out to lead off the in­ning be­fore he en­coun­tered a bout of wild­ness. He is­sued con­sec­u­tive one-out walks to Jose Lo­ba­ton, a .157 hit­ter, and Brian Goodwin, a .240 hit­ter, but re­cov­ered to strike out Wilmer Difo and set the stage for Harper.

Four tense pitches and one smoked line drive foul ball later, Harper struck out swing­ing, ig­nit­ing another ren­di­tion of “Go, Cubs, Go” for the elated spec­ta­tors.

“I just al­ways be­lieve that we have a chance to come back,” Baker said. “Es­pe­cially when we got the ty­ing run at the plate in Bryce.”

JONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY IMAGES

The Nats’ Ed­win Jack­son set­tled down af­ter al­low­ing four runs in the first in­ning, but he took the loss.

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