If the Nationals were going to finally do it, if they were going to cast aside their reputation for coming up short when it matters most and at long last win a postseason series, they were going to have to blast their way through some major obstacles.
The defending World Series champs were tough enough to beat. But in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, the Nationals were left to try to beat themselves, committing one costly gaffe after another during a 4 1/2-hour marathon that featured far more bad baseball than good.
Truth be told, the Nationals didn’t deserve to win this game, not the way they played. Yes, they battled all the way until the bitter end and got some big-time performances along the way. But they made far too many mistakes - unacceptable mistakes, really - to emerge victorious.
And so add another soul-crushing loss in a winner-take-all game to the list. Tonight’s 9-8 loss to the Cubs wasn’t the same as the 9-7 loss to the Cardinals in 2012 or the 4-3 loss to the Dodgers in 2016. But it stung just as much. And it leaves this franchise wondering whether it will ever figure out how to do enough things right to actually win one of these must-win games.
Take your pick of critical gaffes in this one. Gio Gonzalez’s three-inning start. Max Scherzer’s four-run inning out of the bullpen. Matt Wieters’ throwing error and catcher’s interference. Jayson Werth’s misplay on a routine line drive. Jose Lobaton’s inexplicably being picked off at first base with two outs in the eighth.
Take away any one of those and the Nationals might have found a way to eke out a victory and fly directly to Los Angeles for the National League Championship Series. But they all happened, and so it’s the Cubs who will face the Dodgers for the pennant while the Nationals spend another long winter wondering, “What if?”
The Nats led early but trailed most of the way. They had opportunities to claw all the way back, but they were done in by those mistakes. Willson Contreras’ pickoff of Lobaton (the trailing runner with two on and two out in the eighth) was among the bigger killers, with Lobaton initially ruled safe but later called out when replay reviews showed that despite beating the tag, his foot slipped off the base just enough to change the call.
Down to their last chance in the ninth, the Nationals couldn’t push across one more run against Wade Davis, the Cubs closer who was asked to record seven outs and extend his team’s season. The Nats’ season ended with Bryce Harper striking out on a 3-2 cutter, a crowd of 43,849 filing out in silence, once again victims of October misery.
Way back when this game started, the Nationals’ primary concern was Gonzalez, who figured to be pitching with a short leash in an all-hands-on-deck game. The left-hander gave Dusty Baker ample reason to be concerned from the outset. He surrendered a run in the top of the first and had to escape a bases-loaded jam to avoid any more damage.
Gonzalez’s teammates quickly seized control of the game, though, thanks to a second-inning rally that featured a bloop, a bunt and a couple of blasts. Daniel Murphy’s homer on Kyle Hendricks’ first pitch brought the crowd to life, and the throng kept roaring through Anthony Rendon’s single, Wieters’ surprise bunt single and then Michael A. Taylor’s three-run blast to left.
It was Taylor’s second home run in as many at-bats, seven runs having crossed the plate thanks exclusively to his swings, and it left the Nationals holding a 4-1 lead after two innings.
And then it all began falling apart. Gonzalez, who five years ago tonight was handed a 6-0 lead after three innings but gave three runs back before departing after the fifth, gave two back tonight during a harrowing top of the third that included two walks and a wild pitch.
Baker, who had Matt Albers warming twice already, decided to make the move for the top of the fourth. That worked out well, with Albers retiring the side and keeping the Nationals’ 4-3 lead intact. But it was Baker’s next move, one the crowd approved with a thunderous roar, that proved the club’s undoing.
The sight of Scherzer jogging in from the right field bullpen was cause for celebration and should have left the Cubs quaking in their boots. And when the ace right-hander, taking the mound three days after a 98-pitch masterpiece at Wrigley Field, retired Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo with a fastball that reached 98 mph, that might well have been what they were doing.
But then came the impossible, a seven-batter stretch that included just about every misfortune one team could suffer in such a short span. There was an infield single, then an opposite-field single. Addison Russell’s two-run double down the left field line gave Chicago a 5-4 lead, and the nightmare was just beginning.
After falling behind in the count 2-0, Scherzer intentionally walked Jason Heyward. He then struck out Javier Báez, only to watch as the ball squirted through Wieters’ legs. And making matters worse, Wieters tried to force a throw to first base, which sailed into shallow right field to allow a run to score.
But then, confusion. It appears the umpiring crew didn’t correctly apply Rule 6.03(a) and should have ruled the ball dead because Baez’s backswing struck Wieters, wiping out everything that happened after that. Such a play is not subject to replay review.
Things only got worse after that. Wieters was called for catcher’s interference one batter later when Tommy La Stella’s swing clipped him, prolonging the inning and setting the stage for Scherzer to cap the disastrous frame by plunking Jon Jay with the bases loaded.
Yes, with a potential three-time Cy Young Award winner on the mound in relief, the Cubs sent 10 men to the plate and scored four runs on three hits - and a whole lot of events you’ll rarely see in one game, let alone one inning.
It was 7-4 after five, but there was plenty more still to come. The Cubs added a run in the sixth via another bizarre play, with Werth flat-out missing Russell’s two-out line drive to left, a ghastly mistake at a horrible moment in what might have been the 38-year-old’s final game in a Nationals uniform.
Werth, though, did his part at the plate to try to keep his team in this one. He drew a two-out walk in the sixth, took third on Harper’s double and scored on Mike Montgomery’s wild pitch. Murphy’s double then drove in Harper and cut the deficit to 8-6.
The Cubs tacked on another insurance run in the seventh, thanks to a pair of singles off Sammy Solís and a 5-4-3 double play the Nationals couldn’t quite turn in time. The Nats responded with a run in the bottom of the inning when Harper, batting with the bases loaded against lefty José Quintana, sent a sacrifice fly to center.
Ryan Zimmerman’s shot at tying the game, though, ended with a strikeout against the just-inserted Davis, sending yet another agonizing, enthralling, exhausting Game 5 at Nationals Park to the final two innings with more drama still to come.