We are told and trained to think about what’s next. What happened Thursday night can’t be changed by Friday morning, so learn from it and move on. What’s important isn’t how it went down. What’s important is how it impacts the future.
And yet here we are, with so much cud to chew. With what transpired Thursday night and into Friday morning at Nationals Park — the insanity of the Washington Nationals’ 9-8 loss to the Chicago Cubs — it might be instructive to go back and review how many different herbs and spices went into this stew.
The questions about the future — whether Manager Dusty Baker remains here, what tweaks to the roster are forthcoming, whether the Cubs can beat the Dodgers for the National League pennant — can wait. Let’s exhale and review.
“Not really totally sure what happened,” said veteran outfielder Jayson Werth, who probably played his last game as a National. “That was one of the craziest games I’ve ever been a part of.”
So wander through the craziness. Here are the key instances, large and small, that might have turned the game — and extended the season — for the Nationals.
First inning: Gio’s wild pitch, Bryant’s hold
After Jon Jay led off the game with a double, Washington lefty Gio Gonzalez uncorked his third pitch of the night — a curveball on which he couldn’t get a grip. The ball sailed to the backstop, and Jay easily advanced to third. What’s the adage? In a tight game, a team must score runners who reach third with less than two outs. Though Gonzalez struck out Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo managed to do what a professional hitter should do in that instance: get a grounder to second, enough to score Jay and provide the Cubs a 1-0 lead.
The Nats, though, had the chance to return serve in almost the same manner in the bottom of the first. With Trea Turner at third and one out, Bryce Harper had a chance to match Rizzo: score a runner from third with less than two outs.
There were two differences: Cubs Manager Joe Maddon pulled his infield in, and Bryant, the third baseman, played close to the bag, shortening Turner’s lead. When Harper hit his grounder to second, Turner ran on contact. But Bryant’s hold meant Turner had farther to run, and Cubs second baseman Javier Baez gunned him down at the plate. Cubs 1, Nats 0.
Bottom of the second: Zimmerman’s chance, Part I
After Michael A. Taylor’s three-run homer put the Nats up 4-1, they had runners on first and second with two outs for Ryan Zimmerman, in the cleanup spot. Nationals Park buzzed, and a three-run lead felt promising. But what if it became 5-1, or 6-1, or — gulp — 7-1? Facing shaky Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks, Zimmerman struck out on three pitches. Nats 4, Cubs 1.
Top of the fifth: Scherzer in command
This is the frame that will be dissected by scientists from future generations. “Bizarro world,” Maddon called it. But put aside the oddities — a passed ball on Nats catcher Matt Wieters following what would have been an inning-ending strikeout, Wieters’s regrettable decision to throw the ball at all (it ended up in the outfield), a catcher interference and a hit batsman with the bases loaded.
“I’m sure I’ve been in some crazy stuff before,” pitcher Max Scherzer said. “But nothing like that.”
Concentrate, instead, on the normal beginning to the inning.
Scherzer, pitching in relief, retired Bryant and Rizzo — the Cubs’ two best hitters — on six pitches. He then went up 0-2 on Willson Contreras, the cleanup man. Cubs officials, watching from the stands, were quietly preparing to watch Scherzer throw three or four monster innings.
On his ninth pitch, Scherzer got Contreras to hit a grounder to the left of Turner, the shortstop, who had been playing deep in the hole. Turner fielded it — but couldn’t make the throw in time to get Contreras. No big deal. Scherzer went to work on pinch hitter Ben Zobrist, got up 1-2 — but couldn’t put Zobrist away. Zobrist fouled off one 2-2 pitch and then floated the next one over Turner’s head and just short of Werth, the left fielder. Addison Russell’s two-run double immediately followed, and then the game went completely haywire. But none of that happens if Scherzer could have put away Contreras or Zobrist. Cubs 7, Nats 4.
Top of the sixth: Zobrist’s take, Layne’s call
Brandon Kintzler came on in relief of Scherzer and retired the first two hitters he faced. Zobrist was next, and he worked the count full. Kintzler went with his best pitch, a sinker. It came in right at Zobrist’s knees. He didn’t swing. Home-plate umpire Jerry Layne didn’t move. MLB.com’s GameCast technology shows the pitch caught the bottom of the strike zone. Layne called it a ball, and Zobrist walked. Russell scalded Kintzler’s next pitch to left, a ball Werth lost in the lights — turning the final out of the inning into a run-scoring double. Cubs 8, Nats 4.
Bottom of the sixth: Baker’s decision
After Daniel Murphy’s double drove in two runs and cut the deficit to 8-6, Maddon decided to intentionally walk Anthony Rendon to load the bases — putting the lead runner on base. Wieters was the next hitter. He was, at that moment, 2 for 13 in the series — with one of those hits a bunt against the shift earlier Thursday evening. Over his final 36 games of the regular season, Wieters hit .168.
And yet, with lefty Mike Montgomery on the mound, Baker declined to turn to veteran Howie Kendrick, his top right-handed-hitting pinch-hit option. Wieters swung at the first pitch. That he put good wood on it — driving it to right — doesn’t justify the decision-making process. Jason Heyward gobbled up Wieters’s ball, ending the inning. Then, in the course of making a pitching change in the top of the seventh, Baker removed Wieters anyway, exacerbating the problem.
Kendrick never got off the bench.
Bottom seventh: Zimmerman’s chance, Part II
With the Cubs up 9-6, we must remember that Harper came up with the bases loaded — representing the go-ahead run. Harper roped a ball to center — likely a double had the Cubs been playing at regular depth, but a sacrifice fly with Chicago, appropriately, playing deep, a “no-doubles” defense.
Still, that brought up Zimmerman with two outs. Maddon turned to Wade Davis, his closer. Davis hadn’t recorded more than five outs in an outing this season.
“I was prepared to use Wade for six,” Maddon said. “But what’s the difference between six and seven outs, right?”
Here, he would be asked to get seven to finish the game. The first was Zimmerman. A single would have made it a one-run game, a double could have tied it. A homer would have put the Nats ahead. Zimmerman took one strike, fouled off two more — and then swung through a cut fastball. Strikeout. Threat over. Cubs 9, Nats 7.
Bottom eighth: Lind’s swing, Lobaton’s stray
When Davis walked the first two Nats of the eighth, Washington — again — had the go-ahead run at the plate. This time, it was in the person of pinch hitter Adam Lind. This was the perfect spot for Lind, who hit .356 with four homers as a pinch hitter during the year. Davis, clearly, was tiring.
And what did Lind do? He swung at Davis’s first pitch — the aggressive style that had helped him during the year, disastrous in this moment. The result was the worst possible: a double-play grounder.
Taylor followed with a hard single up the middle to cut the lead to 9-8, and when Jose Lobaton, Wieters’s replacement, unexpectedly singled, the tying run was again in scoring position, the go-ahead run on base as well.
But with Turner at the plate, Cubs catcher Contreras noticed Lobaton straying a bit far from first. “They cannot fall asleep on me,” Contreras said. On the third pitch to Turner, Contreras threw to Rizzo, the first baseman. Though Lobaton beat the throw back safely, Rizzo kept the tag on him as he bounced up — just long enough, as Lobaton’s foot came off the bag by about an inch.
After a replay challenge, Lobaton, the potential winning run, was ruled out. Davis had retired only one of the five Nats hitters in the frame. Instead of continuing to sweat, he got a chance to collect himself. Cubs 9, Nats 8.
Bottom of the ninth: Harper’s last stand
The Nats had the top of the order up. Their best player would bat in the final inning. Tying the game — shoot, winning the game — wasn’t unrealistic.
But Turner (short flyball) and Werth (strikeout) went meekly. Still, that brought up Harper — who already had a single, double and sacrifice fly to his credit — as the tying run. “Bryce was just starting to swing the bat,” Baker said.
Davis, though, was starting to find another gear. With the count 1-1, he fired a 95 mph fastball — and Harper fouled it off. Harper then took two high fastballs.
What else would baseball want? Two outs, bottom of the ninth, down by a run, Bryce Harper at the plate.
“That’s what you live for,” Harper said.
But on Thursday night, the Nats died — again. Davis came down and in with a cut fastball — off the plate, actually, perhaps ball four. Harper swung and missed. And with that, he ended 4 hours 37 minutes of riveting mayhem, albeit in the most painful way possible for Washington — so far.
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