If you can win baseball fans in the process of suffering a brutally bitter season-ending loss, perhaps the Washington Nationals did it in their exhilarating, exhausting, 9-8 donnybrook against 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.
“You saw just about everything you could possibly see in a major league game in that one game,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be part of a game like that again.”
“That was the craziest game I’ve ever been a part of. So many things were off the wall. Maybe I’ll go home and watch it again and want to torture myself,” said Jayson Werth, who reached base four times in what will probably be his last game as a National, but also lost a line drive in the lights, whiffed the catch completely and handed the Cubs a run.
“There were like 50 different things you could look at,” he said. “Maybe I’ll sit here and pout.”
It was a ridiculous game, mistake-filled yet thrilling, and few knew how to react when it was over.
The Nats lost because their leader, their competitive exemplar, Max Scherzer, pitching in relief on two days of rest, 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 time, to escape, with rally after heart-stopping rally. But they never could pull even, stranding 13 base runners.
“Just a gut punch again. Here we are in Game 5, play our hearts out, everybody lays it on the line, everybody’s fighting doing everything they can. It was a nail-biter of a game again,” said Scherzer. “It just sucks . . . This game’s cruel sometimes . . . What a series.”
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, 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.
“It was a bad time to have one of the worst defensive nights of my career,” said Wieters, who had a passed ball on a swinging third strike by Javier Baez, then chased the ball down and threw wildly to first base, allowing another Cubs run. Later in that same cursed inning, Wieters committed catcher interference, touching the bat of Tommy La Stella as he swung. That sent La Stella to first base, loading the bases. Scherezer, perhaps shaken by then, hit the next batter with a pitch in the dirt to push home another run.
“Max was throwing the ball great,” said Wieters, disgustedly. “I’m upset with myself for not blocking it (on the Baez passed ball) and then compounding the error.”
There are endless twists in any high-scoring morass of thrilling, brain-twisting details. 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.
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 throw 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.
“I thought I was safe. I didn’t know my foot came off,” said Lobaton, adding later, “That’s baseball. You got to win. You got to lose. And you got to take it.”
For now, “and you got to take it” may have to be the Nationals motto after six seasons with the talent to contend for a World Series spot, but not even one year in the National League Championship Series.
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 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.
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. Perhaps the most shocking scene was the one in which Scherzer, who normally stalks the mound, became the prey who was stalked. That devil-sent fifth 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 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 by a dozen plays.
But this defeat also had a defiance about it that any team, after coming out from under their beds in about a month, can appreciate.
If you must lose, making 43,000 people stand and scream for close to five hours — and perhaps turning plenty of them into baseball believers in the process — isn’t the worst way to expire.