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Maybe, after all this pain, it doesn’t matter anyway. Maybe, after another agonizingly early October exit, the manner of defeat neither explains nor excuses anything that happened. It does not provide consolation.
But that the Washington Nationals fell to the Chicago Cubs, 9-8, in Game 5 of the National League Division Series because Max Scherzer endured an unprecedented debacle, because eight runs were not enough and because Jose Lobaton’s foot was inches off the first base bag only provides unnecessary confirmation of something everyone in this city senses. Something changes in the biggest moments and not for the better. And nothing the Nationals do seems to be able to change that.
The Nationals lost their fourth NLDS in four chances Thursday. They handed a one-run lead to Scherzer, the reigning Cy Young Award winner, in the fifth, needing six outs from him and three each
from their shiny new trio of relievers to vanquish all the demons. The demons vanquished them instead.
They scored eight runs on 14 hits, including homers from Daniel Murphy and Michael A. Taylor and multi-hit nights from Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper. But Ryan Zimmerman, who had seemingly shed his Cubs complex, left seven men on base at moments when the Nationals desperately needed them. The Nationals left 13 men on base in all.
Two of those men, including the tying run, were left there in the eighth when Lobaton got picked off first base. He was ruled safe initially. The Cubs challenged. He got back to the bag, the video replay showed, but his foot came off it for a moment, the prototypical Nationals playoff moment. But Lobaton was not the only victim of October’s D.C. vengeance.
The evening also victimized Scherzer, whose charge in from the bullpen was the stuff of legend and whose collapse was the stuff of something far more sinister. The Cubs staged a twoout, four-run rally built on an infield single, a bloop hit, a groundball double, an error, an intentional walk, a catcher’s interference and a hit by pitch to turn a one-run lead into a three-run deficit on Scherzer’s watch.
He could pitch 10 years more and never throw an inning filled with a such a compilation of calamity. He will spend the next 12 months thinking about that inning, waiting for a chance to redeem himself again.
This is the life of the Nationals, a vicious and unrelenting cycle of waiting, then winning, then losing in the playoffs — a cycle that demolishes faith as it undermines all that they have achieved. They have won their division four times in six years. They have won 95 or more games four times in six years. And at this point, none of that seems to mean much at all.
The Nationals have now lost all four games they have played with a chance to advance. Dusty Baker-managed teams have now lost 10 straight games in which they could have advanced.
Who knows why it happened again Thursday, or why it has happened before, or what will finally make it stop happening. But this team now faces another winter spent wondering how the most talented team in their history could go the way of all the others.
Hope is what makes the whole thing hurt more. Baker’s teams had lost nine straight playoff games in which they could have advanced, and yet he entered this October like any other — expecting good, whatever anyone said. He has yet to win a World Series as manager and is not under contract next season.
When starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez struggled through three innings, Baker got him out, then brought in his ace, choosing the unorthodoxy that has become the new October orthodox. Some wondered if he would.
As it happened, that Scherzer inning was the pivot point, the moment — which feels like an inevitable component of Nationals’ elimination games — at which all the good that came before slides into oblivion.
After Gonzalez left after three innings with a one-run lead and Matt Albers threw a perfect fourth, debacle arrived in the form of a two-out rally that pivoted on a strike-three pitch from Scherzer that bounced through catcher Matt Wieters’s legs. Javy Baez’s backswing hit Wieters, which slowed his pursuit of the ball. Wieters eventually threw wide to first base, which allowed one run to score and runners to advance to second and third.
Major league rules dictate that if a batter’s backswing hits the catcher with two strikes, he is out and no one advances. Home plate umpire Jerry Layne did not appear to see the swing, because he did not make a call. The inning continued, and Scherzer allowed four runs, two of them earned. He allowed four or more runs five times all season.
But the Nationals charged back, thanks in part to Werth reaching base four times. Werth’s Nationals teams had never advanced to the World Series, but he hoped for better. He hoped publicly, explicitly, saying that the success of his transformative Nationals tenure would depend on what happened this year.
Baker struck with Werth despite the fact that he had struggled all series, bet on the man with the long playoff track record instead of the numbers. Werth doubled, singled and hit a line drive to deep center to move a runner.
He also slid right by a line drive right at him that turned into an RBI double. A few fans booed him when he stepped to bat for one of his final Nationals Park at-bats. If happy endings were earned, Werth and Baker would get them. But happy endings, it seems, are given — and never to anyone in a Nationals uniform.
Because when the Nationals battled back against the Cubs bullpen, when Lobaton seemed to slide harmlessly back into first base with the tying run on second, the call was overturned. His foot came inches off the bag as Anthony Rizzo held the tag. This is the margin by which the Nationals fell, the margin between being labeled as chokers and throttling the demons.
Over and over, again and again, they are so close. Over and over, again and again, they provide reason to believe. Once again, a season full of hope left only deafening silence on South Capitol Street, and scolded anyone who had hoped before for doing so again.
Nationals center fielder Michael A. Taylor, who hit a grand slam in Game 4 of the National League Division Series against the Cubs, smacked a three-run homer in the second inning of Game 5 on Thursday.
Washington ace Max Scherzer pitched the fifth inning, allowing four runs, including two earned, three hits and one walk.