WASHINGTON — The Chicago Cubs were five outs away from taking a 2-0 series lead and manager Joe Maddon had his bullpen lined up to nail down a second victory in as many days on the road.
The Washington Nationals, with four hits in the first 16 innings of the National League Division Series, were five outs away from having to answer more questions about why one of the best teams in the regular season can’t come through in October.
But in the blink of an eye — or the time it took Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman to launch homers — the series is tied as the Nationals scored five times in the eighth inning for a pulsating 6-3 victory before a sellout crowd of 43,860.
“I tried to hit it as hard as I could. Mr. Walk-off is sitting next to me,” Harper said of Zimmerman, who has 10 career walk-off homers. “We pull on the same rope every day.”
Maddon was in disbelief that the opportunity got away.
“We played so well. You’d like to be up 2-0 (but) they hit a couple of homers in the eighth inning,” said Maddon, who led the Cubs to the World Series title last year. “We lost the game. They beat us.”
Harper flipped his bat after his two-run homer off righty Carl Edwards, Jr. tied the game at 3. The Washington slugger then got a curtain call and pumped his right fist to the crowd while flipping back his long hair outside the Nationals dugout.
“That was the only option,” Maddon said of using Edwards against Harper. “That was the right option. Harper is good. C.J. is really good. C.J.’s numbers against left-handed hitters are amongst the best in all of baseball. I have all of the confidence in the world in him. He made a bad pitch and the guy didn’t miss it.”
Harper was injured at home Aug. 12 when he slipped on a wet first base while running out a grounder. He didn’t return from the disabled list until the last road trip of the season in late September.
“Obviously a huge hit by him to lift the pressure a little bit,” Zimmerman said of Harper.
The Nationals were staring at a 2-0 series deficit before Harper came through.
“It can certainly wake up the team,” Washington manager Dusty Baker said of the Harper homer. “It can wake up the fans.”
If they weren’t awake after the Harper homer, they certainly were after Zimmerman (2-for-4) hit a three-run shot off lefty Mike Montgomery to give the Nationals a 6-3 lead later in the eighth. The ball just barely eluded the leap of left fielder Ben Zobrist and went over the fence.
“I knew I hit it pretty good,” said Zimmerman, who has struggled mightily in recent years against the Cubs. “Baseball is contagious when you are going well.”
Sean Doolittle pitched the ninth for the Nationals to get his first postseason save. He allowed a one-out single by Addison Russell before getting the last two outs on a double-play grounder off the bat of Zobrist, once a free-agent target of the Nationals.
Cubs starter Jon Lester gave up two hits and one run with two walks and six strikeouts. Pedro Strop pitched a scoreless seventh for Chicago before Edwards came on in the eighth. Kris Bryant (2-for-4) of the Cubs doubled and scored on an Anthony Rizzo homer in the fourth inning.
Rendon, who made an error Friday that led to two unearned runs, hit a solo homer down the right-field line with two outs in the first to give the Nationals a 1-0 lead off Lester.
Willson Contreras of the Cubs tied the game with a solo homer to left off Gio Gonzalez to lead off the second for his second postseason homer.
Chicago made it 3-1 in the fourth as Rizzo hit a two-run homer to right. The homer stood following a crew chief review after a Cubs fans in the front row caught the ball with his bare right hand just above the fence.
Oliver Perez (1-0) got the win as he got the last two outs in the top of the eighth on another double-play grounder.
“We played so well for two days,” Maddon said. “I cannot be happier than I am with our group right now. You’re happy leaving 1-1 before the series began but you’d be really like to be leaving 2-0 leading in the eighth inning. However that’s not reality.”
NOTES: Washington RHP Max Scherzer (16-6, 2.51), who has been bothered by a sore right hamstring, is slated to pitch Game 3 on Monday in Chicago. He will be opposed by Cubs RHP Jose Quintana, who posted a 7-3 mark with a 3.74 ERA in 14 starts after he was acquired from the Chicago White Sox. He has never faced Washington. … Nationals manager Dusty Baker held the same job with the Cubs from 2003-06, and took Chicago to the National League Championship Series in his first season. … Washington assistant hitting coach Jacque Jones, suspended indefinitely with pay by the team Friday over legal issues, played with the Cubs from 2006-07. … Washington 2B Daniel Murphy (1-for-4) has reached base in 21 games in row in the postseason.