Most of them had been through this at least once before, some twice, a select few three times. The Nationals have grown accustomed to - and, quite frankly, tired of - standing inside a dead-silent clubhouse late at night following an agonizing loss in the National League Division Series and trying to make sense of it all.
They did it after the ninth-inning fiasco against the Cardinals in 2012. They did it after a poorly played series against the Giants in 2014. They did it after a dramatic down-to-the-wire loss to the Dodgers in 2016. And tonight they did it again, this time after a 9-8 Game 5 loss to the Cubs that included so many critical moments - some good, more bad - it was hard to remember them all in the immediate aftermath.
“Usually there’s three or four or five plays that change the landscape of the game, or decide the game,” Jayson Werth said. “I feel like there was like 50 plays in this game. This is like the craziest game I’ve ever been a part of.”
It took 4 hours, 37 minutes of tension-filled baseball on a chilly, windy October night on South Capitol Street to complete this latest chapter in the Nationals’ ongoing NLDS tragedy. Countless times, they were one swing away from taking back control of a game they lost several hours earlier, but they also knew they shot themselves in the foot countless times along the way and made a comeback all the more daunting.
“I mean, we didn’t play a very good game,” manager Dusty Baker said. “We still battled til the end. ... It was just, like I said, a series of bad events. It really hurts, you know, to lose like that, especially after what we went through all year long. That was tough.”
After four nip-and-tuck games in which every single run was precious, who could have imagined the Nationals and Cubs would end up playing a gut-wrenching slugfest in the fifth and decisive game? The Cubs scored only eight runs from Game 1 through Game 4. They then scored nine runs in the first seven innings of Game 5. The Nationals totaled 16 hits from Game 1 through Game 4. They then racked up 14 hits tonight.
But the reason the Cubs are now headed west to Los Angeles for their third consecutive National League Championship Series appearance while the Nationals still seek their first such trip is that the home team tonight made far too many mistakes at critical moments to earn the final victory necessary to get themselves over this so-far insurmountable hump.
“I think most of the mistakes were me,” Matt Wieters said.
Wieters was hardly the only one to blame, but the veteran catcher certainly was front and center during a debacle of a fifth inning that turned a 4-3 lead into a 7-4 deficit. During one brutal stretch of an inning that saw Max Scherzer (pitching in relief for the first time since the 2013 postseason with Detroit) allow seven consecutive batters reach base, Wieters was charged with a passed ball, a throwing error and catcher’s interference.
“I’m surprised with how I played,” he said. “It’s a bad time to have one of my worst defensive nights of my career. We still had a shot all the way to the end, but yeah, it’ll be a little while to get over some of the balls that I normally make that I didn’t make tonight.”
Scherzer wasn’t to blame for his catcher’s mistakes, but he made more than a few of his own during that train wreck of an inning. Despite retiring the first two batters he faced and getting two strikes on the third, he couldn’t finish the frame until four runs had crossed the plate, one of them via a hit-by-pitch with the bases loaded.
“Nothing in my head was getting sideways,” said Scherzer, who tossed 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball three days ago. “I was always able to collect my thoughts and really think about what I wanted to execute, what the next pitch was 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.”
Had the Nationals been able to stop the bleeding after that fifth inning, they might well have won. Instead, they gave up two critical insurance runs, and one of those came on another major gaffe.
With two outs and a man on first in the top of the sixth, Addison Russell sent a line drive to left. Werth initially had a read on what looked like a routine play, but then the ball got hung up in a trajectory that perfectly coincided with the lights above the first base line. As he slid to his left, Werth stuck his glove up in a vain attempt to still make the play, but the ball whizzed past him and fell harmlessly to the ground as Ben Zobrist raced all the way around to score from first.
“I feel terrible,” said the 38-year-old, trying not to get choked up after what was likely the final game of his seven-year tenure in D.C. “We lose the game by one run, and I lose a ball in the lights that cost us a run. Maybe it’s more, but I can’t think of 10 plays that have gone into the lights and stayed in the lights that I didn’t catch.”
In spite of all that, the Nationals still kept giving themselves chances to rally late. Down 8-4, they scored two in the sixth. Down 9-6, then scored one in the seventh, then another in the eighth. But just when they put themselves in position to push across the tying run, they made their last (and perhaps costliest) gaffe, this time on the bases.
Jose Lobaton, who earlier had replaced Wieters as part of a double-switch, overcome a mighty task in sending a single up the middle off closer Wade Davis with two outs in the eighth. And with Michael A. Taylor on second base in front of him, Lobaton merely needed to make sure he didn’t do anything costly at first base.
Which is exactly what he did. Straying too far off the base on a pitch to Trea Turner, Lobaton was forced to slide back into the bag when Cubs catcher Willson Contreras fired the ball in his direction. Lobaton beat the throw and Anthony Rizzo’s tag on a close play, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief for one moment - until Cubs manager Joe Maddon signaled to the umpiring crew that he wanted to challenge the call.
And upon further review, Lobaton’s leg came off the base ever so slightly, with Rizzo still applying the tag. The replay official in New York overturned the initial call, Lobaton was ruled out and the Nationals’ last best hopes of a rally disappeared into the night.
“You see in the replay that it was just my foot, just came off just a little bit,” he said. “That was enough for the replay to show I was out. What can I say? It’s part of the rules right now. We have to take it.”
And the Nationals have to accept that another season has ended before they expected it to end. They won their fourth division title in six years. They lost in the first round of the playoffs for the fourth time in as many tries.
The sting of this one will linger for some time. Baker will wonder what he could have done differently. Players will wonder if they could have just made one fewer mistake. And then they’ll start the long process all over again, hoping the next time they put themselves in this position they somehow find a way to not be left standing in that quiet clubhouse trying to explain what went wrong.
“It’s not like we got blown out and we had time to process it,” closer Sean Doolittle said. “Everybody’s kind of stunned because the way that we had clawed back time and time again in that game. We were in it. Everybody’s kind of stunned and dazed. Definitely weren’t ready for it to be over.”