Anthony Rendon thought he had the ball.
Washington's sure-handed third baseman made an error on a sixth-inning grounder that marked his team's first and biggest mistake Friday night during a 3-0 loss to the Chicago Cubs in Game 1 of the NL Division Series. The Nationals went from a potential Stephen Strasburg no-hitter to trailing in a matter of minutes — and never recovered.
It was an unsettling turn of events for a team all too accustomed to these things happening in the postseason.
"Anthony, we've never seen him do that," manager Dusty Baker said. "And it led to a two-out hit, and they got three two-strike, two-out hits, and that was the ballgame."
The defending World Series champion Cubs won behind seven shutout innings from Kyle Hendricks and RBI hits by Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. But the Nationals didn't get a hit after the second inning, a streak of 25 batters, and were left to wonder about sixth-inning mistakes from Rendon's error to Bryce Harper's high relay throw.
Strasburg had eight strikeouts and no margin for error going into the sixth because Hendricks had kept Washington's potent lineup off balance. Rendon's error on a routine grounder off the bat of Javier Baez was his first since July 22 and stunned him, his teammates and the crowd of 43,898 at Nationals Park.
"He's elite over there," second baseman Daniel Murphy said. "He's been unbelievable all year. It wasn't an easy play."
Rendon didn't know what happened other than he went to reach for the ball in his glove and it was on the ground. After a sacrifice bunt by Hendricks put Baez in scoring position, Bryant drove him in with a single to right-center and Bryant advanced to second on a close play after Harper missed the cutoff man.
In that moment, Rendon knew it was on him.
"It's an error," he said. "It's like when you have a car accident. It's not a car 'purpose.' It's a mistake. We're human. It's definitely tough because Strasburg was pitching his tail off and they happened to get two hits after that. So it's never fun."
Strasburg said he tried his best to pick up Rendon, but Rizzo singled to right just in front of Harper, who missed 42 games with a hyperextended left knee and returned last week. Harper said he felt great and didn't blame his health for not making a catch that would've ended the inning and kept it a one-run game.
"I was just coming in, didn't want it to get past me," Harper said. "It bounced right in front of my glove and I just didn't come up with it."
After Strasburg dazzled and dominated during his first 52 pitches, the game shifted on his next several as the Cubs seized a rare opportunity on a night when the right-hander was almost unhittable. Almost.
"I think he was really in a rhythm," Bryant said. "Getting a guy on base, getting a guy in scoring position, get him out of his rhythm a little bit, I think that was huge."
With a history of first-round exits, the Nationals refused to buy into the narrative of "here we go again." But they acknowledged the sixth inning and offensive struggles contributed to them falling behind in the best-of-five series.
"That's playoff baseball," first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "You have to kind of do the little things right, and take advantage of the breaks you get, like they did."
Rendon gave Chicago its biggest break with his error after just seven in the field all season. But his teammates were eager to shoulder the blame and take it off Rendon's shoulders.
"I'll still want the ball hit to him tomorrow," catcher Matt Wieters said. "The bigger problem is that we couldn't put any runs up."