Despite hope rekindled by Game 4’s 5-0 victory at Wrigley Field, the Washington Nationals were eliminated, 9-8, by the defending World Series champions Chicago Cubs Thursday at Nationals Park in Game 5 of the National League Division Series.
Nationals ace Max Scherzer, pitching in relief, was anything but his reliable self, as the Cubs turned a one-run deficit into a three-run advantage in a bizarre, error-laden fifth inning. A blown call by the umpires particularly hurt Washington. The Nationals made a rally, closing the gap to one run and sending the top of the order to the plate to start the ninth inning. But they couldn’t get it done.
The defeat continues a painful trend for the Nationals — they previously lost in the NLDS in 2012, 2014 and 2016. It also keeps another unfortunate streak intact: No Washington team among the four major sports has advanced to a conference final or league championship series since 1998.
Here are the best and worst moments from Thursday’s Game 5 heartbreaker:
Worst weird: Addison Russell’s two-run double in the fifth inning marked the only two runs the Cubs scored via a clean base hit. Chicago scored three times on groundouts, once on a wild pitch, once on a throwing error, once on a hit batter and once on a line drive that was ruled a double but should’ve been caught.
Worst lie: “We’re really zipping along,” TBS play-by-play man Ernie Johnson said during the sixth inning of a game that was must certainly not zipping along. Last season’s 4-3 loss to the Dodgers in Game 5 took 4 hours and 32 minutes. Thursday’s game, in which the Nationals and Cubs combined for 15 walks, 14 pitchers and three replay reviews, lasted five minutes longer.
Best matchup: Unlike last year, when Wilmer Difo made the final out of the Nationals’ season against Clayton Kershaw in Game 5 of the NLDS, Bryce Harper stepped into the batter’s box with Washington trailing by a run and down to its final out against the Cubs. Harper worked the count full before striking out against Wade Davis, who finished his incredible seven-out save on his 44th pitch and sent the Nationals to their fourth NLDS loss in as many appearances.
Worst struggle: Davis never threw more than 34 pitches in any outing during the regular season. He took the mound in the ninth inning having thrown 27 pitches in 1 ⅓ innings and needing three outs to preserve a one-run lead against the top of the Nationals order.
Best performance: Davis fell behind Trea Turner 3-1, but kept the Nationals’ speedy leadoff hitter off the bases by getting him to fly out for the first out. In what was likely his final at-bat as a National, Jayson Werth swung through a 2-2 fastball for out No. 2.
Worst replay: With Taylor representing the tying run at second base and Trea Turner up to bat after a Jose Lobaton single, the Cubs caught a huge break with the aid of replay review. Catcher Willson Contreras fired behind Lobaton after Turner took Wade Davis’s third pitch for a ball, and while Lobaton got back to the bag in time, replay showed that his foot came off the base for a split-second as Anthony Rizzo applied the tag. Umpires initially ruled Lobaton safe, but called him out to end the inning after the Cubs challenged.
Worst TOOTBLAN: The replay review was brutal, but Lobaton had no business taking such a big secondary lead against a catcher who isn’t afraid to make snap throws like Contreras. (For the uninitiated, that’s Thrown Out On the Bases Like a Nincompoop.)
Worst control: Wade Davis, whose longest outing this season was 1 ⅔ innings, joined the six Cubs pitchers who preceded him in the BB column by walking Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon before recording an out in the bottom of the eighth.
Worst first postseason out: Davis got two outs on his next pitch, a curveball that Nationals pinch-hitter Adam Lind, who was 2 for 2 in the first postseason of his career, hit into a 5-4-3 double play.
Best inning: The Nationals scored nine of their 12 runs in the first four games of the series in the eighth inning. They added one more on Thursday on Michael A. Taylor’s two-out single up the middle to score Murphy and cut the Cubs’ lead to 9-8.
Worst LOB: Cubs Manager Joe Maddon went to his closer, Wade Davis, with two outs in the seventh inning. Davis cleaned up Quintana’s mess by striking out Ryan Zimmerman, who left six men on base over his first four at-bats.
Best drama: With one out and the Nationals trailing 9-6 in the seventh inning, Bryce Harper stepped into the batter’s box against Jose Quintana representing the go-ahead run. Unlike Game 2, when he got every bit of a Carl Edwards Jr. pitch on a game-tying home run, Harper just missed a Quintana curveball, but his sacrifice fly to center pulled the Nats within two runs.
Worst ‘walking’ the talk: “We’ll see you guys in L.A.,” confident Cubs reliever Carl Edwards Jr. told reporters after Chicago’s Game 4 loss on Wednesday. Edwards, who entered Game 5 with a 19.29 ERA in the series, walked Michael A. Taylor on five pitches to start the seventh inning and was promptly removed from the game.
Best old tradition: Former National Michael Morse, who threw the ceremonial first pitch on Thursday, led the Nationals Park crowd in singing A-ha’s “Take on Me” during the seventh-inning stretch.
Worst relief: Sammy Solis got the call in the seventh inning and didn’t fool any of the Cubs batters he faced. Javier Baez gifted the Nationals an out by attempting to bunt for a base hit to lead off the inning before Kyle Schwarber put a dent in the right field wall with a loud single. Jon Jay then singled up the middle to put runners on the corners and prompt Dusty Baker to summon Ryan Madson from the bullpen.
Best challenge: Madson got Kris Bryant to hit a grounder to Anthony Rendon, who threw to second to force out Jay. Murphy’s throw to first base was too late to get Bryant, allowing Schwarber to score the Cubs’ ninth run. Baker challenged the play, claiming, or at least hoping, that Jay violated the slide rule when he took out Murpy, but the call stood upon replay review. Still, it was worth a shot.
Best two-out rally: The Nationals got a pair of runs back in the sixth inning off Mike Montgomery. Jayson Werth walked with two outs, advanced to third on a double by Bryce Harper and scored on a ball four, wild pitch in the dirt to Ryan Zimmerman that got away from catcher Willson Contreras. Daniel Murphy followed with a double that one-hopped the wall in left before Montgomery intentionally walked Anthony Rendon and got Matt Wieters to fly out to strand the bases loaded.
Worst defense: Jayson Werth’s bat finally came alive in Game 5, as he had two hits and a line drive out in his first three at-bats, but the 38-year-old remained a defensive liability in left field. With two outs and Ben Zobrist on first base in the sixth inning, Werth appeared to lose Addison Russell’s line drive in the lights. Zobrist scored on the play, which was ruled a double, giving Chicago an 8-4 lead. “What else can go wrong here tonight for the Nationals?” TBS’s Ron Darling asked. We’ve still got at least three-plus innings to find out!
Best positioning: Daniel Murphy walked to lead off the fifth against Cubs reliever Brian Duensing, who was making only his second appearance of the series. Anthony Rendon put a charge into a Duensing fastball on the nine pitch of the Nationals’ next at-bat, but center fielder Albert Amora Jr. hardly needed to move to snag the ball for a loud out. Washington’s next two hitters struck out swinging.
Best sight: Max Scherzer, making his first relief appearance in a postseason game since Game 4 of the 2013 ALDS with the Tigers, throwing heat and stomping around the mound in an elimination game. He needed six pitches to retire Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo to start the fifth.
Worst sight: The Cubs mounted a two-out rally against the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner. After singles from Willson Conteras and pinch-hitter Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell doubled into the left field corner to score both runners and give the Cubs a 5-4 lead. The Nationals Park crowd was stunned.
Worst error: The Nationals should’ve been out of the inning when Scherzer struck out Javier Baez with two men on two batters later, but strike three went between Matt Wieters legs and the catcher’s ill-advised, off-target throw to first base rolled into shallow right field. Russell scored on the play.
Worst meltdown: The Cubs would tack on yet another run after catcher’s interference on Wieters with Tommy La Stella at-bat loaded the bases again and Scherzer plunked Jon Jay with a slider. By the time Kris Bryant’s pop up settled into Trea Turner’s glove to end the inning, the Cubs had pushed across four runs to take a 7-4 lead.
Worst blown call: Baez hit Wieters in the left shoulder with his backswing on the dropped strike three, which should’ve resulted in a dead ball and Baez being called out to end the inning.
Worst timing: “It may have been the ugliest inning the Nationals have played all season long,” TBS analyst Ron Darling said of the top of the fifth. Without question, it was.
Worst track record: Kyle Hendricks struck out pinch-hitter Victor Robles and Trea Turner to start the fourth inning before consecutive singles by Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper brought Ryan Zimmerman to the plate. Zimmerman swung at the first pitch and flied out to left field, leaving him hitless in 15 career at-bats against the Cubs’ starter.
Best relief: Matt Albers took over for Gio Gonzalez to start the fourth inning and retired the Cubs in order on 16 pitches.
Best gift: The second hitter Albers faced? Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks, who Joe Maddon let hit for himself for some baffling reason. Both managers are aware this is a best-of-five, not a best-of-seven series, right?
Worst leash: With everyone but Stephen Strasburg available to pitch for the Nationals, it’s surprising that Dusty Baker stuck with Gio Gonzalez after he issued consecutive walks in the third inning. That decision cost Washington at least one run.
Worst shutdown inning: Armed with a three-run lead, Gio Gonzalez came undone again in the third. Kris Bryant led off with a double that bounced just under the glove of a diving Michael A. Taylor. Willson Contreras and Albert Amora Jr. walked to load the bases after Anthony Rizzo struck out looking on a fastball that was clearly outside. Addison Russell’s grounder scored Bryant to trim Washington’s lead to 4-2, and with Matt Albers finally warming in the bullpen, Gonzalez’s wild pitch with Jason Heyward at the plate allowed Chicago’s third run to score.
Best swing: Daniel Murphy, who came into the game with two hits in the series, led off the Nats’ half of the second inning with a no-doubt home run to right field. Like that, the game was tied and Kyle Hendricks had allowed more runs than he did in seven innings in Game 1.
Best small ball: Anthony Rendon followed Murphy’s home run with a bloop single to right-center field. Shortly after TBS flashed a graphic on the screen that showed 85 percent of the Nationals’ runs in the series (10 out of 13) had come via the long ball, Matt Wieters laid down a perfect bunt against the shift that put two runners on with nobody out for Game 4 offensive hero Michael A. Taylor.
Best breakout star: Taylor’s eighth-inning grand slam into the wind on Wednesday at Wrigley Field gave the Nationals some breathing room in their 5-0 win. His three-run shot into the Cubs’ bullpen in left field on Thursday came on an eye-level, 86 mph fastball and gave Washington a 4-1 lead.
Best nickname: Michael A. Tater.
Best settling down: After a shaky first, Gio Gonzalez seemed to find his rhythm — and his curveball — in the second. Javier Baez flied out to lead off the inning before Gonzalez struck out Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks and Jon Jay.
Best spark: Trea Turner had his first hit of the series in Game 4 and stayed hot — that’s a relative term this series — with a single to lead off the bottom of the first. Turner stole second base and tagged up and advanced to third on Jayson Werth’s line drive to center field that Albert Almora Jr. chased down.
Best defense: With Bryce Harper at the plate, the Cubs played in the infield in. After fouling off a couple of two-strike pitches, Harper hit a sharp grounder directly at Javier Baez. The Cubs’ second baseman made a perfect throw home to nail Turner and preserve Chicago’s 1-0 lead.
Worst start: Jon Jay jumped all over Gio Gonzalez’s second pitch of the game, sending it into the right field corner for a leadoff double. The Nationals challenged the call that Jay was safe at second base, but replay review confirmed that Trea Turner’s swipe tag attempt missed Jay’s left hand.
Worst pitch: The fans behind home plate had a better chance of catching Gonzalez’s next offering to Kris Bryant than Nationals catcher Matt Wieters, and the wild pitch allowed Jay to take third base. Gonzalez rebounded to strike out Bryant, but Jay came into score and give the Cubs a 1-0 lead on a groundout by Chicago’s next hitter, Anthony Rizzo.
Worst laboring: With two outs in the first inning, Gio Gonzalez sandwiched walks to Willson Contreras and Addison Russell around an Albert Amora Jr. single to load the bases. Gonzalez avoided further damage by getting Jason Heyward to ground out to first base, but he threw 26 pitches in the frame. The Nationals could be going to their all-hands-on-deck bullpen sooner rather than later.
Best hope: Gonzalez’s 5.62 ERA in the first inning during the regular season was, by far, his worst of any inning. His ERA in the second inning was 1.41.
Worst history: The Nats, Capitals, Wizards and Redskins have gone a combined 68 seasons since one of them reached a conference final round or league championship series. Those teams are also a combined 3-12 in their last 15 chances to advance in a playoff series at home. D.C. sports is (over)due.
Best accessory: Max Scherzer, who will be available to pitch up to two innings out of the bullpen on Thursday, sported the pink backpack normally reserved for Nationals rookie relievers.
Worst anniversary: Exactly five years ago, Gio Gonzalez took the mound in a deciding Game 5 at home against the defending World Series champions. Jon Jay was the leadoff hitter for the Cardinals that night, just as he was on Thursday. Gonzalez wasn’t sharp and allowed three runs over five innings while walking four and striking out five. He left with a 6-3 lead in a game the Nationals would lose, 9-7. “I’m sure redemption is on his mind,” Baker said of his decision to start Gonzalez.
Best news: The Nationals have a different closer than they did in 2012.
Best blessing?: The Nationals entered Game 5 hitting .130/.241/.252 as a team. The offense could use an intervention, divine or otherwise.
Worst home-field advantage: Including the Yankees’ triumph in Cleveland on Wednesday, road teams have won 15 of 21 Game 5s in the division series round since 2002. The Nationals, who are seeking their first playoff series victory, are 0-2 in Game 5s in D.C. during that span.
Best or worst lineup decision: “Jayson has been a big-game guy for a long time,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said when asked before the game if he considered benching struggling outfielder Jayson Werth on Thursday. Werth had one hit and two walks in 16 plate appearances in Games 1-4. Will he snap out of his funk with the season on the line?
We’ve also got a ton of extra Nationals content, including an interactive graphic on how this team was built, some deep thoughts from various Nationals on why this postseason could be extra special, and an oral history of how the Nats fixed baseball’s worst bullpen. Even more is below, so get cracking.
Read more on the Nationals: