With the Nationals leading 4-3 in Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the Cubs, the fifth inning started off well for Max Scherzer in his first relief appearance of the postseason. Scherzer recorded a pair of outs.
But then the trouble started.
The Cubs’ Willson Contreras singled. Then Albert Almora Jr. singled. The hit that changed the game came next from Addison Russell, who laced a double that hugged just inside the bag at third and down the line.
Contreras and Almora scored. Suddenly, the Cubs led 5-4.
Scherzer intentionally walked Jason Heyward. Javier Báez struck out. But the pitch got away from catcher Matt Wieters and his throw to first base got by first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and second baseman Daniel Murphy and went into right field.
Tommy La Stella reached on catcher’s interference to load the bases. Incredibly, Jon Jay was hit by a pitch to score Heyward.
What was a 4-3 Nats lead when the inning began was now a 7-4 Cubs advantage. The complexion of the game was turned on its side.
“I just tried to stay within the moment and try to reset, regroup, try to focus on the next pitch,” Scherzer said. “Nothing in my head was getting sideways. I was always able to collect my thoughts and really think about what I wanted to execute, what the next pitch is going to be. But, hey, something like that happens and you’ve just got to be able to deal with it. This game, you can execute pitches and sometimes that’s not enough.”
In the four-run fifth, the Cubs tallied three hits and benefited from an intentional walk, a passed ball, catcher’s interference and a throwing error by Wieters.
“I don’t know. It’s playoffs. Anything can happen,” Scherzer said. “I’m sure I’ve been in some crazy stuff before, but nothing like that. That’s playoff baseball. You have to be able to withstand anything, be ready for any type of situation and those were situations. Just got to find a way to execute. Just couldn’t find a way to get this last out.”
Manager Dusty Baker attempted to explain the fifth inning when the Cubs scored four runs with two outs. Baker said the strikeout, passed ball and throwing error charged to Wieters were the plays that stood out in the frame.
“That was probably one of the weirdest innings I’ve ever seen with the third strike and then Báez hits Wieters on the backswing,” Baker said. “We had a hit batsman that I thought looked like a foul ball from over there. Man, you know, had a catcher’s interference. You know, we gave away at least three or four runs.”
One interpretation of the rule has been that it should be a dead ball and the baserunner should have returned to his base when Báez contacted the catcher. But that was not what home plate umpire Jerry Layne explained to Baker after the play.
“No, I didn’t see the backswing, but Wieters told me,” Baker said. “You know, I thought the rule was a dead ball and they said it’s not a dead ball. Only on a stolen base. That’s what I was told.”
But even with all the strange plays in the inning, Baker said it was out of character to see Scherzer let the inning get away from him, especially after recording two outs.
“I’ve never seen anything like that from Max,” Baker said. “You know, he had two quick outs, followed by an infield hit and a blooper. Then that’s when Russell hit the ball down the line, and that was a big turning point in the game, and then all the other bad series after that happened.”
The Nats trailed 8-4 and 9-6, but chipped away to 9-8 before a three-up, three-down ninth.
In the end, with the season over, Scherzer was emotional about the loss. With everything Scherzer accomplished in 2017, it all ended with the final loss of the season tagged to the right-hander.
“Just gut punch again,” Scherzer said. “Here we are in Game 5, play our hearts out, everybody lays it on the line, everybody’s fighting to do everything they can and we lose a nailbiter of a game again. it just sucks because I just know how hard everybody played, how talented everybody is. This game’s cruel sometimes just the way things can happen. What a series.”