CHICAGO — Wrigleyville is a cramped corner of Chicago, where everything is a fight for space.
From bars to the bleachers to the bathroom, uncontested space is at a premium. The same goes for the ivy-bounded field where players cram century-old dugouts and fight for space 90 feet at a time in a ballpark that can only feel bigger on days the wind is blowing in from Lake Michigan.
And yet it being the type of space where you can never feel comfortable stretching to let out a yawn, Anthony Rizzo’s eighth-inning RBI bloop single somehow found the only Hula Hoop-sized bit of territory at Wrigley Field that seemingly wasn’t occupied by a human being.
But like every other space at Wrigley, the few square feet of grass where the ball land certainly was being contested.
A short while after Rizzo and the Cubs took a 2-1 Game 3 win and a 2-1 series lead in the best-of-five NLDS, the three Nationals defenders were crowded into — where else? — a cramped batting cage underneath the right field stands.
It was there they talked to the media about being stuck in middle of the most helpless of baseball plays and what they possibly could have done about it.
The short answer?
“From my vantage point, I thought maybe Trea had the best shot at it,” left fielder Jayson Werth said. “Then when I looked at him, he was kind of turned around on it.”
“The [outfielders] definitely have better angles at it because I’m twisting and turning,” shortstop Trea Turner said.
I take blame for that,” center fielder Michael Taylor said. “As center fielder, I have to take over and take charge. That ball can’t drop like that.”
But it did.
Almost every other Nationals player in the interview also struggled to explain it and for good reason.
Reliever Oliver Perez made the pitch he wanted against the Cubs’ big slugger and got the kind of weak contact that should have normally sent the game to the ninth inning tied at one.
Yet it didn’t happen.
Turner, a young, fast player with good range, got a jump on the ball, running out to shallow outfield in what he deemed a challenging “free-for-all.”
But he couldn’t pull it in.
Werth and Taylor, in Werth’s words, “busted it” from their respective positions.
But neither wanted to dive for the ball, fearful that Turner would camp under it.
Communication? Werth said there was no time for anyone to call the rapidly-falling ball and that the crowd noise from the Cubs faithful would have made it impossible to hear each other anyways.
“It’s tough because I felt like I really didn’t have a chance at it at the time,” Werth said. “But I went back and looked at [the replay] and thought maybe I did.
“In the moment, though, it was a tough ball for someone to call and get to.”
A somber Taylor seemed a little more regretful.
“I should have dove,” he lamented.
Rizzo stumbled rounding first and was tagged out, but not before Leonys Martin came around from second with what would end up being the winning run. Television cameras then captured Rizzo clearly screaming “respect me,” a head-nod to the fact that Nationals manager Dusty Baker didn’t walk Rizzo with first base open.
“That’s the mentality I take always with the base open. I want to make guys pay,” Rizzo said. “I hit where I hit in the order. I drive in runs, and that’s just the mentality that I always take in.
“Usually I keep that stuff behind the scenes and say that stuff, but just my emotions got me there.”
Said Baker of the decision to pitch to Rizzo instead of walking him and facing Willson Contreras: “You hate to put extra men on base at that point in time in the game … We decided to pitch to him. You couldn’t have thrown a ball in there any better than he did. That was the game.”
Should another good Nationals season end after Tuesday’s Game 4 or an if-necessary Game 5 in Washington on Thursday, they’ll curse the bad luck of having an otherwise-great baseball game being tweaked by the baseball gods.
And it was a great baseball game, contested by two teams that might split an even 50/50 if they played 100 of these series.
Cubs starter Jose Quintana, acquired from the crosstown White Sox just after the All-Star break, was solid in his first-ever playoff start, throwing 96 scoreless pitches and handcuffing the top of the Nats lineup before being lifted in the sixth.
Nationals starter Max Scherzer was just a tad better despite battling a sore hamstring, taking a no-hitter into the seventh-inning before Ben Zobrist took his 98th pitch and turned it into a double.
Anthony Rendon and Matt Wieters both crushed pitches to the warning track only to see them run down by great efforts by Jason Heyward and Jon Jay.
OK, the less said about Kyle Schwarber’s brutal two-error play that led to the Nationals only run of the night, the better.
All of it will fade, though, when history remembers this not as the game where Schwarber caused a lot of laughs in left field or Baker maybe yanked Scherzer a few batters too early, but for a descending baseball that somehow sprouted eyes.
If the random bad luck was bothering the Nats, they certainly weren’t showing it, no matter the headlines that will follow them if they make another early exit after winning 97 games.
And no matter that this seemed a more winnable matchup for Washington than the Tanner Roark vs. Jake Arrieta matchup that awaits on Tuesday night.
“If he had hit a bullet off the wall, I think we would have been mad, too,” said reliever Brandon Kintzler, who took the loss after walking Tommy La Stella to start the eighth.
But in a room full of “that’s baseball” quotes, Scherzer took it upon himself to manufacture the best sound bite for the night.
“This game can be great, this game can be bad. You watch [Ryan Zimmerman’s] home run [in Game 2], it made it out by a foot. We caught that break.
“Today they hit a ball and it was a foot out of everybody’s reach. That’s what can happen. That’s playoff baseball”