One strike away, Nats lose another heartbreaker (updated)

CHICAGO - The Nationals have been in this position too many times this summer. And too many times they’ve trudged off the field agonizing over a game that somehow got away from them late.

If somehow they’re going to survive this roller coaster season to keep playing in October, they simply are going to have to flip the script on these games. Where better, then, to start but on a Sunday night at Wrigley Field, with a national television audience watching a classic pitchers’ duel and a stellar August ballgame between two teams that have played a whole lot of stellar ballgames against each other in recent seasons?

And they were poised to do it. It was right there for the taking. All they needed was one more strike from Ryan Madson in the bottom of the ninth. One more strike he could not record.

And because of that, what should’ve been the most uplifting victory of the Nationals’ season instead turned into their most devastating loss to date.

“I mean, it’s a gut punch,” Max Scherzer said inside a disconsolate postgame clubhouse. “It’s a gut punch.”

Madson-Throws-Red-Sidebar.jpgHanded a three-run lead for the bottom of the ninth after a brilliantly played game to that point, Madson loaded the bases via an infield single and two hit batters. Then with a 2-2 count to David Bote, the veteran closer watched in horror as the Cubs pinch-hitter crushed a low fastball to center field, off the batter’s eye for a walk-off grand slam that now defines the Nats’ season to date.

Instead of a 3-0 win, the Nationals lost 4-3. And instead of climbing back to within 4 1/2 games of first place in the National League East for the first time since June 29, they’re again stuck at 5 1/2 games behind both the Phillies and Braves, now somehow needing to mentally recover from an absolutely crushing loss.

“All in all, for 8 2/3 innings we played really good baseball,” said manager Davey Martinez, as beaten down as he has looked this season. “Really good baseball. We left here with one win, we should have had three. I’m proud of those guys, and I’m not giving up on any of them.”

The Max Scherzer-Cole Hamels duel took center stage for seven innings, with the Nationals ace edging out his counterpart by only the slimmest of margins.

But then came the real drama in the final two frames. Clinging to a 1-0 lead, Koda Glover escaped an eighth-inning jam despite briefly thinking Javy Báez had beat Mark Reynolds’ throw across the diamond on a two-out chopper to third. The crowd of 36,490 roared when first base umpire Todd Tichenor ruled Báez safe, but the Nationals challenged the call, and after a long review officials in New York overturned the call and brought the inning to a close.

Ever so desperate to tack on some insurance in the top of the ninth, the Nats got a one-out triple from Trea Turner, then a walk from Juan Soto. And when Cubs manager Joe Maddon elected to intentionally walk Bryce Harper, the bases suddenly were loaded for Ryan Zimmerman against his former teammate, Brandon Kintzler.

Zimmerman, who spent the last two seasons thrust into these exact same situations against the Cubs and coming up short nearly every time, delivered at last with a sharp single up the middle. Two runs scored, the Nationals led 3-0 and Kintzler was removed having retired only one of the seven batters he faced in this series (and that one required a leaping catch by shortstop Addison Russell).

“I was on the other side when we walked him upteen times,” said Martinez, Maddon’s former bench coach. “It was good to see. I loved it, good for him and I’m proud of him. He’s endured a lot this season, trying to get healthy. He’s back and doing really well.”

All that was needed now was three outs from Madson, the third-string closer filling in for injured teammates Sean Doolittle and Kelvin Herrera. He recorded only two of them. Jason Heyward beat out a chopper to second with one out, with defensive replacement Wilmer Difo unable to make a play that was ruled a single, then Madson hit Albert Almora with a pitch. After getting Kyle Schwarber to pop up for the second out, Madson hit Willson Contreras with a 2-2 curveball.

Why the sudden loss of command? Madson explained afterward that he was dealing with two issues: 1) a previously unreported back problem that affects his ability to drive off the mound, and 2) an inability to get a good grip on his curveball or changeup.

“I tried to fight through it,” Madson said of the back issue. “Everybody’s dealing with things all the time, but this one’s been big. It cuts out power on my back leg as I go down, so I lose position and control of the ball because of that. That’s why the last couple games I’ve been pulling balls to the left, if you go back and watch the video.”

With Justin Miller hurriedly warming in the pen, Madson proceeded to face Bote with the bases loaded. The pinch-hitter worked the count to 2-2, at which point the veteran reliever knew he could only hope his fastball would be good enough to get the job done. It wasn’t. Bote crushed a 95 mph offering at the knees some 442 feet to center field, leaving Wrigley Field in sheer bliss.

“I knew I was probably going to go all fastballs to him,” Madson said. “Bases loaded. I had a good fastball. I tried to cut a couple tonight again, but with the back issue, especially the last one, it almost feels like the ball comes out muted out of my hand. It probably looks a lot better to the hitter. That was the last one. It didn’t come out of my hand very well.”

The starting pitching matchup was worthy of its prime-time billing, and then it actually lived up to it. Scherzer and Hamels each were in peak form from the outset, with Hamels suffering only the briefest of hiccups in the top of the second to account for the game’s first run.

After retiring the side in the top of the first, Hamels opened the second by going to a full count on Zimmerman and then walking the Nationals’ cleanup hitter. And when Daniel Murphy followed with a cue-shot single just inside the third base line, the Nats were in business, with runners on the corners and nobody out.

Mark Reynolds didn’t make great contact, but his lazy fly ball to right field was deep enough to score Zimmerman from third and give the Nationals a 1-0 lead.

It’s a good thing they got that run when they did, because Hamels cruised after that. The left-hander retired 18 in a row after that, baffling the opposition with the fastball-changeup combo that has served him so well throughout his career.

“I haven’t seen Cole in a couple years, since he’s been over in the American League,” Zimmerman said. “But he had all four pitches working tonight. He was throwing a little bit harder than he was the last time we saw him. He was obviously tough tonight.”

Fortunately for the Nationals, Scherzer was at his very best, too. The right-hander struck out seven batters in his first three innings on the mound, and though he surrendered a pair of singles, each came with two outs and neither runner was able to advance beyond first base.

Even with a high strikeout count, Scherzer was able to keep his pitch count respectable. He entered the bottom of the seventh at 85 in total, and though a complete game appeared out of reach, he did leave himself in position to keep going well into the night and allow Martinez to not have to think about using too much of his bullpen.

That decision wasn’t necessary until the top of the eighth, at which point the Nationals were still clinging to that 1-0 lead and Scherzer had just extended himself through a high-stress bottom of the seventh that concluded with a strikeout of Willson Contreras to strand the tying runner on second on his 106th pitch of the night.

“I was fatigued,” Scherzer said. “I was starting to get tired. But the crowd got loud, and that gave me some energy and adrenaline to keep executing pitches.”

With his ace spent, Martinez decided to go to his bullpen in search of the final six outs needed to win this game. It was a situation all too familiar to the Nationals this summer. The only question was whether the result would be familiar or new.

The path to get there may have been new, but the end result was way too familiar. And you can’t help but wonder how many more times this team can take punches like this without falling to the mat for good.

“I want it to linger right now for 30 minutes, and (for players to) think about it,” Martinez said. “And let’s come back tomorrow and not make the same mistakes.”

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