Nationals left to process another early October exit

Jayson Werth has been through this before, more times than he’d like to remember. No two postseason elimination games are quite the same, and every season-ending loss hurts in its own way.

This one, though, this one was ... well, what exactly was it? The final score said the Nationals lost 4-3 to the Dodgers in the decisive Game 5 of the National League Division Series. The winding path it took to get to that final moment, though, that was unlike anything Werth or others in a somber clubhouse had ever really experienced.

“This one’s tough,” Werth said. “You play all year for this, and you get to this point and you want to win. You feel like you get right there, and you get it taken away from you right at the last second. This one’s tough, it hurts. It was a crazy series. We battled, they battled. It was right there. Right there for us to get. Didn’t get it done, man. It sucks.”

This wasn’t 2012, when the Nationals blew a six-run lead to the Cardinals in the do-or-die game. This wasn’t 2014, when Matt Williams pulled Jordan Zimmermann in the ninth, watched Drew Storen give up the tying run and then his team lose to the Giants hours later in the 18th inning.

The Nationals played a good game. They played a good series. But once again, when they were in prime position to plate a run that was there for the taking, they could not deliver.

They lost three games in this series to the Dodgers. All were by one run. Just like 2014, when all three losses to the Giants were by one run.

trea-turner-wall-nlds.jpg“That’s what baseball’s about,” Bryce Harper said. “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. I thought we played a great game. I thought we played a great five games. Wasn’t able to get the job done, but I thought we played really well as a team, as a whole.”

This already had been a great series through four games, with highs and lows for both clubs. Game 5, though, elevated it to an entirely new level, into a series people will be talking about for years to come.

It took 4 hours, 32 minutes for them to play nine innings of Game 5. It took 22 of the Nationals’ 25 players to see action, 19 of the Dodgers’ active players. It took 66 minutes to complete the wildest seventh inning you’d ever hope to witness. It took Los Angeles closer Kenley Jansen recording seven outs on 51 pitches, and then Clayton Kershaw (coming out of the bullpen two days after throwing 110 pitches on short rest) to record the final two outs, stranding the tying runner in scoring position.

“It’s the craziest game I’ve ever been a part of,” starter Max Scherzer said. “We just didn’t get it done. No one’s a goat. No one made a crucial misplay. Everybody stepped up and did their game. We just didn’t get that extra run.”

It was shaping up to be a much more normal game, with Scherzer dominating for six innings and the Nationals clinging to a 1-0 lead supplied by Danny Espinosa’s RBI single in the bottom of the second. But then came that fateful seventh inning, which featured more twists and turns than a Russian novel and surely will remain a topic of discussion and debate for some time.

Scherzer opened the inning serving up a homer to Joc Pederson on his first pitch, prompting manager Dusty Baker to turn to his bullpen. What ensued was a parade of five relievers needed to record the three necessary outs to advance the game to the bottom of the inning. Before that could happen, the Dodgers had scored four runs.

“Things happen quick,” said Shawn Kelley, who surrendered a two-run triple to Justin Turner and then departed after suffering what appeared to be a serious arm injury after throwing a pitch (though he said afterward he was confident he would’ve been fine to return within a couple days). “They made moves, and we countered with moves. It mounted up quick. Our hitters fought and got us right back in it. All we could ask for was a chance at the end. We had it.”

Yes, they did. Chris Heisey’s pinch-hit homer in the bottom of the seventh brought the Nationals back to within a run and brought the sellout crowd of 43,936 back to life. But that one final clutch hit continued to elude them.

After thriving in key spots at the plate during Games 2, 3 and 4, the Nationals reverted back to their Game 1 form again. In both the first and final games of this series, they went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position.

Their last opportunity came in the bottom of the ninth, after Harper and Werth each drew one-out walks off Jansen, whose pitch count had now soared to 51. So who came in to face Daniel Murphy with the season on the line but Kershaw, the ace left-hander who was never supposed to be available to pitch in this game. “Absolutely not,” manager Dave Roberts said earlier Thursday afternoon.

Murphy had delivered so many times for the Nationals this season and throughout the playoffs, but this time he popped up on Kershaw’s 1-0 pitch.

“I got a pitch middle-in, it felt like, and he just beat me to the spot,” Murphy said. “I thought I probably could’ve cheated a little bit more right there. I leveraged the count in my favor (at) 1-0 and he beat me to the spot. It’s a bit frustrating right now.”

The Nationals’ very last opportunity came down to Wilmer Difo, the rookie infielder who was among the last players to make the NLDS roster. He didn’t stand much of a chance against Kershaw, striking out on five pitches and leaving a ballpark packed to the gills dead-silent aside from the guys in blue who mobbed their ace in the center of the diamond.

While the Dodgers poured champagne and beer in their clubhouse and prepared to go to Chicago for the National League Championship Series, the Nationals retreated to their clubhouse, plastic tarps rolled up above their lockers, ready to be unfurled just in case.

Down the hall, Baker sat behind a desk and answered questions about this game, about this season, and the abrupt manner in which it ended.

“I’m not ready to go home,” the 67-year-old manager said. “I haven’t been home since February, but I would have gladly stayed a couple more weeks.”

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