Nationals come up short again, lose 4-3 in epic Game 5

This one will require some time to fully process. The crowd of 43,936 that sat, stood, roared and groaned through every moment of Game 5 of the National League Division Series knows only that it just witnessed one of the wildest winner-take-all showdowns in baseball history.

Someone will write a novel about this one, maybe on the 66-minute seventh inning alone, the critical frame of the game that featured more highs and lows than you could reasonably imagine.

The only thing the fans that filed out of the park well after midnight - with Metro's last train having long since departed - know for sure is that they just watched the Nationals come up short in the postseason once again. This 4-3 loss to the Dodgers was quite different from their soul-crushing losses to the Cardinals in 2012 and the Giants in 2014, but it was no less painful to accept.

Leading 1-0 for much of the night and with ace Max Scherzer dealing, the Nationals saw it all come crashing down in the top of the seventh, with four runs crossing the plate as Dusty Baker summoned a conga line of relievers from his bullpen, nobody able to make it stop.

Then, just as all hope appeared lost, Chris Heisey launched a two-run homer in the bottom of the inning, bringing the Nationals back to within a run and bringing the crowd back into the game. But with an opportunity to drive in the tying run, Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon each struck out to wrap up the marathon seventh frame.

And then, with Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts forced to use closer Kenley Jansen to record eight outs and then summon Clayton Kershaw 48 hours after he threw 110 pitches on short rest, the Nationals put up one last fight in the bottom of the ninth.

With the tying and winning runners on board, Kershaw entered and got Daniel Murphy to pop up to second base. The season came down to Wilmer Difo, the rookie infielder who Baker couldn't even identify the first week of spring training. And the season ended with Difo trying in vain to reach first base after striking out on a pitch in the dirt, some 4 hours, 32 minutes after it began.

The Dodgers mobbed Kershaw at the mound and made plans to fly to Chicago for the National League Championship Series. The Nationals trudged away and made plans for another long winter pondering what might have been.

It all began in such promising fashion, with Scherzer on the mound and living up to the billing as a Cy Young candidate.

scherzer-pitching-follow-through-sidebar.jpgScherzer notoriously lives for games like this, morphing from a mild-mannered and jokey individual the previous four days into an amped-up maniac on the day he pitches. The right-hander typically uses that to his advantage, but even if there's a concern he might go overboard, the Nationals know better than to try to bring him down a few notches.

"You think about it, but what are you going to do? You can't give him a Valium or something and tell him to chill," Baker said before the game. "He has to work that nervous energy out of him."

The crowd tonight only fed into Scherzer's take-no-prisoners attitude. He was cheered when he walked out to the bullpen to warm up, and he was cheered when he walked back from the bullpen after warming up. He was cheered every time he got two strikes on a batter, and he was cheered every time he struck out a batter.

And by the time he had completed his first three innings, Scherzer had faced the bare minimum of Dodgers batters possible. The lone man to reach: Yasmani Grandal, who drew a leadoff walk in the third but immediately was erased on a nifty 3-6-3 double play turned by Ryan Zimmerman and Danny Espinosa.

At that point, the Nationals had staked Scherzer to a 1-0 lead, scratching out that run thanks to Murphy's leadoff single, a bold delayed steal attempt that paid off and then a once-in-a-blue-moon moment. With two on and one out, Espinosa poked a single to right, driving in Murphy (who made a nifty dance move to avoid Yasmani Grandal's tag) with the game's first run. It was only Espinosa's second hit of the series and only his second opposite-field hit while batting right-handed all season.

With Scherzer cruising, even that slimmest of leads felt like it could be enough on this night. But the Dodgers made him work their second time around the lineup. After needing only 37 pitches to complete three innings, he needed 30 alone in the top of the fourth, then 20 more in the top of the fifth.

Scherzer kept the Dodgers from plating any runs through it all, but most of these pitches were high-stress, and he was forced to empty the tank just to get through six innings on 98 pitches.

Now came the key managerial decision, whether to let Scherzer return to the mound for the seventh. First, though, was the key decision by third base coach Bob Henley, whether to wave around Werth on Zimmerman's double into the left field corner. Henley decided yes, and he paid dearly for it. Werth was thrown out by a country mile, the crowd groaned and Scherzer retook the mound for the seventh.

He was out there for only one more pitch. Joc Pederson ambushed Scherzer and launched his fastball over the left field wall, and suddenly the ballpark fell silent as Baker walked to the mound to remove his ace.

What transpired after that can only be described as a nightmare the likes of which Washington baseball fans always fear in the back of their minds but pray they never have to witness. Five Nationals relievers pitched to seven Dodgers batters. Carlos Ruiz singled home a run off Sammy Solis. Justin Turner tripled home two runs off Shawn Kelley, who then had to depart after appearing to suffer a significant arm injury throwing a pitch.

Suddenly trailing 4-1 after a 37-minute top of the seventh, the Nationals were as lifeless as the ballpark. Until one mighty blow brought everyone back from the brink.

Heisey's two-run, pinch-hit homer off Grant Dayton completely reversed the course on which this game was headed. The veteran's fourth pinch homer of the year cut the deficit to 4-3, it left the crowd roaring and it sent what already was a highly compelling ballgame into an entirely new stratosphere, the likes of which few in these parts had ever experienced in person.

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