Imrem: Chicago Cubs win the mind game again, eliminate Nationals
The Nationals probably knew before the first pitch Thursday night what the challenge was in the decisive Game 5 of the NLDS.
To beat the Chicago Cubs between the lines, the Nats were going to have to beat them between the ears.
It was as simple as this: Win the mind game, win the series; lose the mind game, lose the series.
All you need to know is that the Cubs prevailed 9-8 to advance to the NLCS, which begins Saturday night in Los Angeles.
Give the Nationals credit, though. They didn't crack. They simply couldn't make the Cubs crack.
Both teams made some bad plays and some dumb plays, but it took two good teams, two resolute teams, to play a game this dramatic.
The Cubs have become expert at postseason psychological operations after qualifying the past three seasons.
Just before the NLDS began, Cubs infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist, last season's World Series MVP, said the pressure is on the Nationals.
It was hard to dispute the claim, considering the Nationals made a habit of making the playoffs this decade but not winning a single series.
Meanwhile, over the past two years the Cubs had won a wild-card game, two NLDS, an NLCS and a World Series.
The disparity was the demon the Nationals had to slay.
The way the game unfolded -- and at times unraveled -- both teams had ample opportunity to show what they're made of.
The lead changed hands a couple of times early with each team going up by 3 runs. How they responded to falling behind would determine the outcome.
Both responded by continuing to keep on keeping on.
The Cubs had developed a reputation for knowing how to deal with winning, with losing, with setting tones, with playing from behind, with playing from ahead, with every circumstance imaginable.
"We've been through a lot of different scenarios," is the way Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo puts it.
The Nationals had to know they had to do more than stick a fork in the Cubs' ribs; they were going to have to stick a stake in their hearts.
The outwardly confident and inwardly cocky Cubs not only tweaked Washington but also smacked Los Angeles over the head back in August, when it looked like the Dodgers were going to win maybe a million regular-season games.
"I'm very confident playing against (the Dodgers), absolutely," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "I like the way we match up against them -- a lot, not a little bit."
Well, we'll see next whether Maddon is right, and more important whether the Cubs can win the head games against the Dodgers.
The Cubs have developed a sort of quiet swagger bordering on an underdog arrogance. Their attitude was a factor this season in surviving the dreaded World Series hangover, an uninspiring first half of the season and assorted injuries.
So there the Cubs were Thursday night, strengthened by last year's successes, hardened by this season's struggles, facing another challenge.
Their heart rate didn't accelerate enough to cripple them, and their brain cells didn't frazzle enough to paralyze them.
Even then, nothing was guaranteed because teams that play better and execute better wind up advancing.
But winning the mind game can contribute as mightily toward that end as winning the physical game.