CHICAGO -- At the crack of the bat, Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo thought for sure his eighth-inning duck snort in Game 3 of the National League Division Series between the Cubs and Washington Nationals would fall in. But as he started to run to first base he changed his mind. In fact, he changed it more than once.
"I knew they were playing deep," Rizzo said after the Cubs' thrilling 2-1 win on Monday to take a 2-1 series lead. "But as I was running, I thought [center fielder] Michael Taylor was going to make a sliding catch."
Taylor did no such thing, nor did left fielder Jayson Werth or shortstop Trea Turner. The ball fell in between the three players as if it was placed there -- at about the same time pinch-runner Leonys Martin was crossing the plate to break a 1-1 tie. Wrigley Field went crazy.
Somehow, someway, the Cubs have won two games in this series in which they were no-hit into the late innings. This time, a little contact by the Cubs' best contact hitter did the trick.
"We were all screaming and yelling ‘drop, get heavy,' and things like that," teammate Kyle Schwarber said about what the Cubs were saying in the home dugout as the ball went up in the air. "It felt like it took about five minutes to drop. When it did, there was mayhem in the dugout, especially by me. A lot of happiness right there. That's a big player in a big spot coming up big. No surprise there."
It's no surprise because Rizzo has done it all season. The team's regular-season RBI leader (by a wide margin) is having a great series partly because Nationals manager Dusty Baker keeps having his staff pitch to him. In Game 1, with a base open and a man on third, Baker didn't even send a lefty to the mound against Rizzo and he promptly doubled home a run. In Game 2, again with a base open and a man on, he was pitched to; he homered off lefty starter Gio Gonzalez. And now in Game 3, with first base open a third time, Rizzo dropped in the game-winner. Perhaps that's why he pounded his chest and screamed "Respect me! Respect me!" after the hit.
"Yeah, that's the mentality I take always with the base open," Rizzo said. "I want to make guys pay. 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."
His teammates loved it.
"He's our leader," shortstop Addison Russell said smiling. "Whenever we see him get pumped up the whole team gets pumped up. I just like seeing that excitement."
Schwarber added: "He's been the rock through this series right now."
Rizzo is 4-for-12 with a double, a home run and five RBIs through the first three games. The Cubs have scored only eight in the series so far. Runs batted in might be an antiquated statistic but don't tell the Cubs' manager that. Rizzo has been at the center of some of the biggest RBIs for his team this year.
"There are some guys that are like that and a big reason is he uses the whole field," Joe Maddon said. "He's not always trying to pull the baseball. When he's not going well, he's in the pull mode. When he's using the whole field, that's normally when he's pretty good."
See the eighth inning on Monday for evidence. Baker, grudgingly, gave credit to Rizzo when asked about pitching to him.
"I mean, it's not really turning it on when you bloop one in there, you know what I mean?" Baker said. "So that ball is kind of in never-never land out there, between three merging players on our team. Like I said, you couldn't have [placed] the ball any better if he had thrown the ball in there."
Rizzo's night ended well but the beginning of his day wasn't bad either. Before the game, Major League Baseball announced he was a finalist for the Hank Aaron Award, which is given out annually to each league's best offensive performer. He's also a finalist for the Marvin Miller Man of the Year Award as well as the Robert Clemente Award.
"I just need the Willie Mays Award," Rizzo joked after batting practice.
The Mays Award is the new name for the MVP of the World Series. With the Cubs leading 2-1 over the Nationals they're starting to look more and more like a team that could get back to the Fall Classic. Their win on Monday was heart-stopping, especially as Scherzer racked up hitless innings, not allowing a base hit until the seventh.
"You've just got to stay in the moment," Rizzo said. "These games, it doesn't matter what you did the last at-bat; if you got a hit, if you got a home run. It's all about that pitch and that next pitch, and you've got to be ready for that pitch."
When Perez came in the game, Rizzo got ready. Baker had already disrespected him twice, why would he walk him this time?
"I believe I'm a really good hitter," Rizzo continued. "I believe I'm one of the best hitters in the game and you have to believe that. You have to believe in that. There's a lot of power that comes with that."
Before Rizzo gets too high on himself, he always has his teammates to bring him back down. After his hit, he got caught off first base and was tagged out in a mini rundown -- fortunately Martin had already crossed the plate. It led to that chest pumping moment but good friend Kris Bryant was having none of it.
"I didn't see that [chest pumping]," Bryant deadpanned. "I just saw his baserunning mistake."
Reminded how many clutch hits and runs driven in Rizzo has produced this year, Bryant relented. He knows a good thing when he sees it.
"I guess it's the year of the RBI for Rizz," Bryant said finally smiling.
Add one more to his total.