CHICAGO — When Game 3 of the National League Division Series was over, and Anthony Rizzo's bloop hit between them was officially the decisive blow in the Washington Nationals' 2-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs, outfielders Jayson Werth and Michael A. Taylor squeezed into the cramped video room in the visitors' clubhouse at Wrigley Field, hoping to find something they could do differently next time. Their Nationals are one game from elimination now, not so much outplayed as outdone somehow, with no clear fixes or explanations.
Looking back at the tape, Werth thought shortstop Trea Turner had the best shot, but saw him turned around at the last minute. Turner said he had no clear sense of where Werth and Taylor were — they had been positioned back for Rizzo — but ended up twisting and turning in pursuit.
Taylor took responsibility. That ball can't fall, he said. I'm the center fielder, so I have to take charge, he said. But when asked what he would have done differently, he stumbled.
"Once I see [Turner's] looking at the ball straight over his head, kind of extended a little bit, I think one of us has to take a shot right there. . . . I wish I would have dove," said Taylor, who might have ended up concussed if he had. "It's tough when that ball falls and we're all standing on our feet like that."
Such is the state of the Nationals this series — still on their feet, never down for the count — but watching gravity pull their season into imminent danger anyway. They have gotten to the cusp, to within feet and even inches of a very different series.
But they are one loss from elimination all the same, unable to say exactly why, particularly after a game in which bloops fell for the Cubs and Nationals blasts found gloves, a game in which Max Scherzer carried a no-hitter into the seventh — a game in which the Nationals' two best relievers watched as others succumbed to October strain again.
"Kind of a game of what-ifs, I guess," said Werth, who could play his last game as a National on Tuesday, in part because a poorly hit ball fell a few feet away as he and his teammates stood helplessly by.
Rizzo hit that ball off Oliver Perez, who made his pitch, jammed one of the best hitters in baseball in a key situation — and somehow suffered anyway. Rizzo had the chance to hit that two-out bloop because Brandon Kintzler, who started the inning, walked the leadoff man and set up a rally.
A cursory playoff history of the Nationals could be told by tracing the winding journey of their bullpen. That bullpen has taunted itself and all who care for it with encouraging showings, like the four scoreless innings it compiled in the Nationals' Game 2 win Saturday.
But it will be remembered most for misadventures, like the moment Sammy Solis could not keep a runner from scoring in the seventh inning, allowing the Cubs to tie the game. Solis said he made the pitch he wanted to make, but Albert Almora Jr. just hit it for an RBI single.
"You just get beat sometimes," Solis said. "They get paid to hit it just like we get paid to throw it."
All of that is true. The other guys get paid, too. But why do the other guys always seem to catch the breaks against the Nationals this time of year. Why did the only man to get a hit against Scherzer in 6 1 /3 innings end up scoring the tying run?
Moments like those stick out because they consume the good ones — like the 6⅓ no-hit innings Scherzer threw before allowing a double to Ben Zobrist with one out in the seventh. Had Solis gotten two outs, Scherzer's performance after battling back from a right hamstring injury would look heroic — epic, even. Instead, it somehow wasn't enough.
In the first three games of the series, the Nationals starters have each gone at least five innings. None of them has allowed more than three runs. All of them struck out at least six Cubs. In an October filled with calamitous starts, the Nationals have had only strong ones — and they have one win to show for it.
In Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg's five combined postseason starts for the Nationals over the years, they are pitching to a 2.08 ERA. Neither of them has ever been the winning pitcher in one of those starts.
And the problem with bullpen blaming is that Nationals relievers could — and perhaps should — have had more leeway. The only run the Nationals scored came after Kyle Schwarber dropped and kicked a ball around the left field corner in the sixth, allowing Daniel Murphy to reach third base ahead of Ryan Zimmerman, who drove him home. An earlier two-error inning went for naught. The Nationals drove Jose Quintana's pitch count up but could not score. Even a run or two more would have changed things entirely.
Instead, the Nationals left their fate to baseball's fates, which have never been kind to them.
Decisions influenced things, too. Should Scherzer have stayed in longer? Should Solis have been pitching there? Should Kintzler have stayed in? Manager Dusty Baker said they felt they made the right decision in taking Scherzer out, and therefore forcing the Cubs to pinch-hit for Schwarber.
"I probably couldn't live with myself if Schwarber had hit one out of the park on you," Baker said. So he managed away from that.
Could the Nationals have put Rizzo on first base, which was open, and bring in Ryan Madson to face right-handed catcher Willson Contreras? Baker said he didn't want to put anyone extra on base there.
Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo rebuilt the bullpen around two elite relievers — Madson and Sean Doolittle. Should they have appeared? Should Doolittle have faced Rizzo?
"We thought Perez could do the job," Baker said. "And he did the job. It's just that [Rizzo] found a hole."
Postgame hours like these, the ones spent hashing and re-hashing, tossing responsibility back and forth, make a person wonder about exactly what, if anything, ails the Nationals this time of year.
Checking the tape doesn't reveal any easy answer, just "what ifs" and "probably should haves" that suddenly sum to "now what?" Since 2014, the Nationals have played seven one-run games in the postseason. No one decision or bloop-not-caught can explain why they have lost them all.
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Box score: Cubs 2, Nationals 1