More Na­tion­als cov­er­age starts on

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY CHELSEA JANES

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.

PHO­TOS BY JONATHAN NEW­TON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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.

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