At 4:08 p.m., four hours before the latest Biggest Game in Nationals History, Dusty Baker strode into the interview room and fended off two days of tension with his effervescence.
The Washington Nationals manager hugged Katy Feeney, a Major League Baseball senior vice president. He pointed and smiled at others. If anyone could provide a good vibe for a nervous sports community burdened by past failure, it had to be Baker, a 67-year-old who keeps moving forward.
Playing a home closeout game in a city whose pro sports teams had failed to advance at home in 10 of its previous 13 opportunities, Baker grinned and detailed his Thursday morning routine.
“I got up, said my prayers like I always do,” Baker said. “Got a cup of coffee. And then packed for Chicago.”
The prayers went unanswered. The advanced packing for the National League Championship Series was in vain. In an epic, winner-take-all Game 5 of this National League Division Series, Baker’s persistent spirit met a force it couldn’t defeat: history. Specifically, it was the manager’s history of exiting the postseason in the most torturous ways imaginable and the entire city’s similar pro sports misadventures.
They combined to produce a fresh wound: Los Angeles Dodgers 4, Washington Nationals 3. Despite all the optimism Baker displayed before and during this game, the result was painful. Again. Pain, always. That’s mostly what the Nationals have felt during three playoff losses in the past five seasons. That’s mostly what Baker, their first-year manager, has felt while chasing a World Series for most of the past 23 years.
For six innings at Nationals Park on Thursday night, it seemed like something good was about to happen. And then came chaos. It started with Baker sticking with his ace, Max Scherzer, who looked every bit like a $210 million difference maker until that point. With the Nationals ahead 1-0, Scherzer took the mound in the seventh and threw one pitch. Dodgers center fielder Joc Pederson hit it into his team’s in left field. The game was tied, but a disastrous inning that resulted in the Nationals giving up four runs and losing reliever Shawn Kelley to injury was just beginning.
By the time it was over, the notion of a D.C. sports curse seemed plausible once more.
Was it even a mistake that triggered the catastrophe? Scherzer had thrown 98 pitches through six innings. He had allowed just four hits and two walks before Pederson came to the plate. He had seven strikeouts. He was Mad Max, not the pitcher who struggled in Game 1. Baker was right to stick with Scherzer, even though it was getting late in the game, even though the Dodgers’ lefty-dominant, power-hitting lineup had the potential to be kryptonite for a star pitcher who gives up too many home runs.
It was just as big a problem that the bullpen, which had been good the first four games, faltered in Game 5. It was just as big a problem that the Nationals squandered chances to increase the lead early. It was just as big a problem that, after Chris Heisey’s two-run homer in the bottom of the seventh, the Nationals had runners on first and third with one out and couldn’t scratch out the game-tying hit. Jayson Werth struck out. And after an intentional walk to load the bases, Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen struck out Anthony Rendon to end the threat.
It was just the kind of heart-wrenching finale that fans feared. Washington teams are now 3-11 in their past 14 home elimination games. Baker has lost nine straight playoff games in which his team could have advanced. It’s the longest streak in Major League Baseball history, according to ESPN Stats and Info.
Baker’s losing streak in closeout games doesn’t include the heartache of a Game 7 defeat in the 2002 World Series. He was managing San Francisco then. The pitcher who lost that game, Livan Hernandez, threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Nationals Park on Thursday night.
Bad omen? That thinking is too negative for Baker. He’s a positive talker. He makes decisions out of positivity. If anyone had reason to succumb to D.C.’s fret, it would be Baker. But he’s not wired that way.
“You know how I feel about that word, concern,” Baker said before the game. “That don’t really belong in my vocabulary, really, because concern really doesn’t do any good.”
He was answering a question about being worried that Scherzer would be too amped up for the game. But the words apply to any potential stressor for Baker.
Baker has survived prostate cancer and a stroke, and somehow he looks better than he did 10 years ago. For all the success he has had while in pursuit, the postseason has rewarded him with so much pain and disappointment that, if he were the timid sort, he might wonder whether all the winning had been worth it. Still, he packed to go to Chicago for Games 1 and 2 of the NLCS.
On the surface, his postseason pain and disappointment made Baker a morbid fit managing a baseball franchise that has known postseason pain and disappointment and living in a city that wears its recent postseason pain and disappointment like a scarlet letter.
But while history should never be taken lightly, Baker refused to give it too much credit. The combined recent failures of the Nationals, Wizards and Capitals weren’t going to influence how Scherzer controlled his pitches. Baker wasn’t going to make in-game decisions Thursday night to average his infamous 2003 NLCS loss with the Cubs or his 2012 NLDS loss with Cincinnati after leading San Francisco two games to none.
“Yeah, you notice it,” Baker said when asked about the local anxiety. “I mean, this is why we’re here. We come here to win, not only for the organization and ourselves but the town. I mean, this is something that lasts. It’s going to go a long ways in town and is going to last forever when you finally win. One thing that I urge the town is to be in a positive mood.”
For six innings, Baker and the Nationals had a beaten-down sports community believing in the power of positivity. And then came pain and disappointment. Unfortunately, around here, those things are far more persistent than optimism.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.