If you can win baseball fans in the process of suffering a brutally bitter season-ending defeat, perhaps the Washington Nationals did it in their exhilarating, exhausting, 9-8 donnybrook defeat to the World Series champion Chicago Cubs on Thursday night at a jam-packed Nationals Park that never knew what hit it.
Time will tell whether so much pain, administered in a nearly five-hour battle full of so many pleasures, will be considered by those lucky and miserable enough to attend as a thing they wish to experience much more. Or never again.
The Nats lost because their leader, their competitive exemplar, Max Scherzer, pitching in relief on two days of rest, normally considered plenty to be effective, was clubbed for four runs in his only inning and took the loss. He arrived to start the fifth inning, oh, happy days and standing ovations with a 4-3 lead. Mad Max left with the Nats trailing 7-4, a deficit from which they tried, time after grimly time, to escape, with rally after heart-stopping rally. But never did.
The Nats lost because two of those runs off Scherzer were unearned because Matt Wieters, a four-time all-star catcher known for his soft hands and glovework, turned into a one-man circus act at the worst possible time. Wieters, the brainy fellow from Georgia Tech, the calm center of every team on which he has played, suddenly found himself spinning like dirty laundry in the tumble cycle.
First, in Scherzer’s one bizarre frame, Wieters committed a passed ball on a third strike to Javier Baez that should have ended that nightmare of a fifth inning. Just an instant after missing that pitch in the dirt, Wieters chased the ball toward the backstop but threw wildly to first base as a run scored.
As if caught in a vortex of exactly the kind of mistakes the cerebral Wieters never makes, the Nats catcher then committed one of the game’s oddest and rarest sins: catcher interference. With his head perhaps swimming, Wieters allowed his glove to flick the swinging bat of pinch-hitter Tommy La Stella to load the bases. Scherzer, perhaps wondering what parallel universe of horrors had swallowed him, hit the next batter in the foot with a pitch.
There are endless twists in any high-scoring morass of thrilling, brain-twisting detail. But the idea of a season-ending loss coming on a margin that was created by poor pitching from Scherzer and hallucinogenic defense by Wieters staggers even the baseball imagination. And the baseball imagination has been staggered, stretched, folded, spindled and mutilated for generations.
The Nats also lost because, once again in Game 5 of a Division Series, just as in 2012, starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez came up small. The first man he faced doubled and scored. He barely escaped the first inning, leaving the bases loaded. And presented with a 4-1 lead entering the third inning, thanks to a solo homer by Daniel Murphy and a three-run blast by Michael A. Taylor — making it two homers in as many at-bats, for a tidy seven RBI after his grand slam Wednesday in Chicago — Gonzalez handed back two runs immediately. Gio, supposedly the new, improved and more mature Gio, aided the Cubs with two of his four walks in that inning, plus a wild pitch that sent home a run.
The Nats even lost because Jayson Werth, 38 and playing probably his last game as a National, misjudged a line drive that he should have caught so badly that he never even touched it, gifting Addison Russell with an RBI double.
Finally, as the Nats mounted a two-on, two-out rally in the bottom of the eighth against tiring closer Wade Davis, who was being asked to get the final seven outs, the vagaries, or some would say viciousness of the sport jumped up one last time. With Trea Turner, who already had two hits, at the plate, Willson Contreras tried to catch Jose Lobaton, the Nats catcher, off first base. Contreras is famous for the move, and Lobaton beat the play back to the bag — clearly.
But in the new world of baseball challenges and replays, doing things that would have been satisfactory since the 19th century is no longer good enough. Lobaton’s foot came off the base for an instant. The Cubs challenged. And he was ruled “out” after the crowd of 43,849 waited in agony for 96 seconds.
All of this will remain one long, blurred, gruesome memory all winter, and perhaps longer, because the heretofore somnolent Nats offense did its job, battering out 14 hits. But rally after rally died just short.
In Chicago, some may say, “The Nats crumbled, just like we said they would.” Although I actually doubt anybody in Chicago is that cruel or that oblivious to how closely matched these teams were and how fortunate the winner — whichever it had been — would have to be.
Few games are the true sage that this one evolved into over several hours.
Baseball at its best is living theater where the blood on the stage, even if it is merely the blood of broken hearts, and the heroism, even if it is just poise under pressure with millions watching, has the added power of being real with a plot that is undetermined and often impacted by events that bend credibility.
Nationals Park on a chilly, moody night was just such living theater, performed by the Cubs and Nationals before a standing room audience, rowdier than any at Shakespeare’s Globe, full to the top rows with red-clad fans who would have paid a princely ransom just to know the last act — who lived, who died and how — before the first act ever began.
But this was a baseball play in which even the number of acts was unknown. Before the game, with a trip to Los Angeles to play the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series as a prize, few would have imagined that, before the game’s midpoint, there would have been a half-dozen distinct and blatantly melodramatic acts. This shameless torturing of the emotions had the crowd, more than 90 percent Nationalists, swinging between early fretfulness to elation to mounting concern to delight at the appearance of their favorite prince to disconsolate shock at his undoing.
Perhaps this night would have been much different if stolid combative Tanner Roark had been named the starting pitcher rather than the more talented, but mercurial, sometimes-rattled Gonzalez.
However, Manager Dusty Baker picked Gonzalez, and for admittedly theatrical reasons. “Gio had a Game 5 a couple years ago and didn’t do too well,” Baker said. “So I’m sure redemption is on his mind as well.”
Didn’t do well? Given a 6-0 lead, Gonzalez, who was then a 21-game winner and a much more powerful pitcher then than now, came apart quickly, giving back half of the lead, largely due to four walks, in just five innings.
Much the same, in fact worse, befell him in this Game 5. His second pitch was lashed into right field for a double by Jon Jay. Gonzalez sent him to third with a wild pitch worthy of those that beaned the bull mascot in “Bull Durham.” He might as well have help up a sign: “Dusty, pay close attention.”
The third Cub drove home Jay with a groundout and before this kindergarten finger-painting mess of a first inning was over, the Cubs had loaded the bases but let Gonzalez escape when Jason Heyward grounded out.
The next act, the perfect counterpoint, was one of the best eruptions the Nats offense has ever had in postseason. Murphy, emerging from a series-long slump, smashed Kyle Hendricks’ first pitch of the second inning deep into the right-centerfield bleachers. That “crack” was like a call to arms for a Nats offense that had scored just 12 runs in four games and was batting .140.
The next few minutes, relish them because winters are long, were the highlight of the night for the Nats and the kind of classy outburst that often establishes a sort of territorial dominance in October winner-take-all games.
Anthony Rendon singled to center, then Wieters, who has been hitting under .200 since the all-star break and an easy-to-remember .000 against the Cubs in this series, performed the act of a desperate man to perfection. A long and distinguished of squatting and crouching as a four-time all-star catcher has left him the slowest man on the Nats and perhaps in entire quadrants of the District. Teams “give him the bunt” because he could only beat out an ideal one.
So Wieters easily beat out a bunt that rolled dead a foot from the third base line. Such unexpected twists excite both a crowd and a team. The next hitter was Taylor who, in his previous at-bat in Game 4 in Chicago had hit a victory-icing grand slam through a stiff wind off elite Cubs reliever Wade Davis.
On the third pitch from Hendricks, a cap-high fastball on an 0-2 pitch designed to get Taylor to chase, Michael A. delivered the Nats’ best shock of the night — a three-run rocket of a home run deep into the Washington bullpen in left field. The Nats led 4-1.
How many punches could Chicago take? Turns out, the Cubs were playing rope-a-dope, and the crazy fifth inning put the Nationals on the canvas.
That devil-sent inning put the Cubs in front, and hard as the Nats battled to pull even, they never made it.
All defeats are not created equal. This one, because of all the bizarre, self-inflicted mistakes and weird misadventures that befell the Nats, will be seen as just as painful as their exits in the same round in 2012, 2014 and 2016. The game was there to be won in a dozen ways. But this defeat also had a redoubtable dignity, a defiance about it that any team can, after coming out from under its bed in about a month, can appreciate.
If you have to lose, making 43,000 people stand and scream for nearly five hours — and turning plenty of them into baseball believers in the process — isn’t the worst way to expire.