WASHINGTON — Things were looking bleak for the Washington Nationals and their dormant offense until Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman took over.
Harper hit a tying two-run homer in the eighth inning and Zimmerman tacked on a three-run shot moments later to lift the Washington Nationals to a 6-3 comeback victory over the defending World Series champion Cubs on Saturday, evening their NL Division Series at a game apiece.
The Nationals were in serious danger of falling behind 2-0 in the series, entering the eighth trailing 3-1 after dropping Game 1 by a 3-0 score. But after accumulating four hits through the first 16 innings of the postseason, NL East champion Washington broke out with five runs and four hits, led by 2015 NL MVP Harper and longtime face of the franchise Zimmerman.
"I was kind of bewildered, because it's not too many teams or pitchers that have held us in check like that for a couple days," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. "I just knew in the bottom of my heart that we were going to explode for some numbers, which we've done all year."
The NLDS moves to Wrigley Field for Game 3 on Monday. The Cubs will have Jose Quintana on the mound and the Nationals counter with two-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, who was pushed back in the rotation because of an injured right hamstring.
Jon Lester held Washington to one run and two hits through six innings, but Cubs manager Joe Maddon turned to his bullpen and everything changed.
After pinch hitter Adam Lind led off the eighth with a single, Harper connected off a hanging curveball from Carl Edwards Jr., taking a moment to admire his shot before chucking his bat to the ground as the ball reached the second deck in right field. His teammates in the dugout reacted immediately, screaming and raising fists as the ball tore through the night air.
Maddon defended his decision to have the righty-throwing Edwards pitch to the lefty-batting Harper.
"He made a bad pitch and the guy didn't miss it, and that's it. Sometimes that happens. Bryce is good. C.J. is good," Maddon said. "Bryce got him."
With fans in the crowd of 43,860 roaring and twirling red towels handed out at Nationals Park, Harper jumped up the dugout steps for a curtain call, throwing an uppercut. Then he flipped his hair on his way back to rejoin his teammates after his fifth homer in 16 career postseason games.
"We knew Harp was due," Baker said. "He's known for the big moment. Man, he blasted that ball a ton."
It was the first extra-base hit for Harper since he returned from the disabled list during the last week of September after missing 42 games with an injured left knee. He was only 4 for 25 overall in the regular season and playoffs after coming back until that key, possibly series-altering at-bat.
"The more at-bats I get," Harper said before Game 2, "the more comfortable I get." Harper also said Saturday's Game 2 was "not got-to-win," that he's "played in a lot of bigger games, I feel like, than this," and that "growing up, playing in front of 15,000 people at 10 years old, it's kind of the same thing to me."
After the next two men reached, Zimmerman stepped in to face Mike Montgomery. This has been a renaissance year for the first baseman, who had only 15 homers and 46 RBIs during an injury-plagued 2016, but led the Nationals this season with 36 homers and 108 RBIs.
His shot off a 93 mph fastball was hardly the no-doubter Harper's drive was, but on an evening in which balls carried in 12 mph wind — every run scored on a homer — this one barely cleared the green wall in left field.
As he began running the bases, Zimmerman jutted his right fist out, then spread both arms wide, the way a kid pretends to be an airplane.
It made a winner of Oliver Perez, who pitched to one batter in the eighth, Anthony Rizzo, and induced an inning-ending double play. The last of Washington's six pitchers, closer Sean Doolittle, came on for the ninth and earned the save.
In the fourth, Rizzo became the Cubs' career leader in postseason homers (six) and RBIs (16) with a tiebreaking two-run shot off Gio Gonzalez to give Chicago a 3-1 lead. The ball was barehanded by a man in a No. 17 Kris Bryant Cubs jersey and with a camera slung around his neck. He reached over a railing to grab it; after an umpire review, the initial ruling that it was a home run stood.
Washington's Anthony Rendon had homered off Lester in the first, and Chicago's Willson Contreras went deep against Gonzalez in the second.
TO CHANGE OR NOT TO CHANGE
Maddon made several changes to his Game 2 lineup, while Baker watched his team manage only two singles in Game 1 and didn't alter a thing for Game 2. "You don't do it just to be doing it," Baker said. He added: "On some days, when the pitcher's on, you can put Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, all of them out there, and he's still going to get them out."
Scherzer, the 2016 NL Cy Young Award recipient, finally makes his 2017 postseason debut on Monday. This will be Scherzer's 15th career postseason start; he is 4-4 with a 3.74 ERA. Chicago's Quintana, meanwhile, will be making his playoff debut and his first appearance against the Nationals. He went 7-3 with a 3.74 ERA for the Cubs after arriving in a trade from the White Sox.