This Thursday evening started in the mist and ended in a mess, and the educated Washington fan could have told you that when he or she woke up. The Washington Nationals played a game to extend their season. They lost that game. Their season is over. Those with strong stomachs, read further. The rest: See you in spring.
By the standards of a normal town, the fashion in which all this happened at Nationals Park was bizarre — funhouse mirror weird, baseball as a Dali painting. Here, in strait-laced Washington, it fits into the athletic fabric perfectly. The pattern, by now, is well-established. Washington might be able to muster optimism on a morning such as Thursday. It might, over lunch, convince itself of this advantage or that.
But get through the gate at the ballpark, and dread is so readily available. The concessionaires slip it between the hot dog and the bun, mix it into the carbonated beverages, slide it into the programs. By now, babies here are born with it, ingrained.
The final score at Nationals Park, in the fifth and decisive game of this National League Division Series: Chicago Cubs 9, Nats 8. The Cubs, champions a year ago, fly to Los Angeles to face the Dodgers for the right to reach the World Series. The Nationals failed to win a playoff series — again — the fourth time in the past six years they have reached this stage and taken a crowbar across the knees.
“Gut punch — again,” said pitcher Max Scherzer, who was in the center of Thursday’s canvas.
On this night, everything we have learned about Washington sports over the past generation was reinforced, with arguments about whether the anguish caused by the Nationals now outdoes that caused by football’s Redskins, basketball’s Wizards or hockey’s Capitals. Discuss among yourselves. We’ve got all winter.
But in breaking down this particular evening — when the Nationals once held a three-run lead — consider the simplicity of this: The Nationals entered the fifth inning with a 4-3 advantage and handed the ball to Scherzer, who might well win his third Cy Young Award this year as his league’s best pitcher. When Scherzer left the mound at the end of that frame, the Nats trailed 7-4.
“Usually, you lose a game and you could look back at like three or four, five plays that changed the landscape of the game,” said veteran outfielder Jayson Werth, who authored one of those plays when he lost a line drive in the lights, costing the Nats a run. “I feel like there was like 50 plays in this game.”
Did half come in the fifth, with Scherzer on the mound? Seems like it.
Slice open that inning and examine the parts, and the true Washington nature of this loss is revealed. Four straight Cubs reached base in unconventional ways, some known only to true baseball seam heads — an intentional walk, a strikeout with a passed ball (about which there was some controversy), catcher interference and a hit batsman. The website baseball-reference.com has 2.73 million half-innings in its database. None of them contain those four events — let alone from four consecutive hitters.
“That was probably one of the weirdest innings I’ve ever seen,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said.
“It was bizarro world,” Cubs Manager Joe Maddon said. “There’s no question about it.”
The things that happened Thursday night, they haven’t happened in the history of baseball. Yet they happened to the Nationals in what was to be their biggest, best night. As an organization, the Nats faced a game that could push them to territory they have not traversed. They have only played 13 seasons in the nation’s capital, and part of their franchise history is tied to Montreal, where they were born as the Expos in 1969. They filled a gap here, baseball’s 33-year absence, and so for the first few years, there was joy in their mere existence.
Since they became successful by winning their first division title in 2012, the Nationals had adopted the ways of Washington’s other professional teams. Or those ways had adopted them. It’s hard to tell.
When Washington starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez gave up a double to the Cubs’ first batter of the night, then threw a pitch to the backstop to allow him to advance to third, Nationals Park grew quiet — and not oddly at all. This is the tension that now accompanies these events in this town. Many of the players on the field may not have been a part of such events earlier, though Gonzalez himself was the starting pitcher in a Game 5 five years ago. But many of the fans, they were here.
So the crowd of 43,849 carried past pain with it, a 6-0 lead against St. Louis in that fifth game in 2012, five years ago to the night. It’s nights like these when, in Washington, little-known names such as Pete Kozma, a pesky, light-hitting infielder for the Cardinals, become infamous. Kozma’s crime against the District: a tiebreaking single in the ninth inning, killing those Nats, providing the foundation for a past filled with pain.
“You can’t put that pressure on you,” Baker said before the game. “You try to simplify the pressure that, ‘Hey, we’ve got to win one game, regardless of if you’ve never won a series.”
The problem for some of those people who hauled all that pain to the park Thursday night is that, around here, it’s not just the Nats. Native Washingtonians in their 40s and their 60s remember a time — what a time — when winning and their home town weren’t adversaries. But the children here, they had known nothing but abject disappointment.
So spit out all the stats again because they inform the mood of the crowd at any Washington sporting gathering with the stakes of Thursday. The Redskins were once a model NFL franchise, winners of three Super Bowl titles, the last of which came following the 1991 season. They haven’t played for a conference championship — a game from the Super Bowl — since.
The Wizards (then the Bullets) won the NBA championship in 1978, reached the finals a year later, and haven’t returned to the conference finals since. The 1997-98 Capitals made the Stanley Cup Finals in hockey and have three times finished with the best regular season record in the NHL. Yet four times in the career of Alex Ovechkin, the best player in franchise history, the Capitals have faced a do-or-die game in which a victory would have pushed them into the conference finals. They lost each time.
The teams, they share that link.
“Sometimes, the reputation of the town in other sports — basketball, you hear about it,” Baker said. “In hockey, you hear about it. Just different things. So you have to dispel those negative thoughts on your mind and just say, ‘Hey, it will be us.’ ”
But it hasn’t been, not for years. So we go to these games, and we write these sentences, and we move the adjectives around, and we consult the thesaurus. But really, it’s some version of the same story. The characters change, if only slightly. But the feeling, walking back to the Metro or the parking lot, is the same.
The most stunning collapse Thursday came with Scherzer on the mound. A starting pitcher by trade, he was in the bullpen for Game 5 — even though he had started Monday’s Game 3 in Chicago — because of the nature of the event. He had told Baker he could have pitched an inning Wednesday, but the Nats didn’t need him because Stephen Strasburg threw so brilliantly in a 5-0 victory. That he got the first two outs and then allowed four runs — it’s not conceivable.
“Nothing in my head was getting sideways,” Scherzer said.
Yet everything in the ballpark already felt that way. With the deficit at 8-4, the night could have been over. The Nationals had morphed into a sloppy version of themselves. But it fits that they would provide more torture. So they made it close.
In the eighth, center fielder Michael A. Taylor — a hero in Game 4, when he hit a grand slam — drilled a two-out single up the middle, scoring Daniel Murphy with the run that made it 9-8. Jose Lobaton, the light-hitting backup catcher, followed with a single to keep the rally alive.
And then, disaster. With leadoff man Trea Turner at the plate, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, blessed with an ungodly arm, threw to first in an attempt to pick off Lobaton. The umpire initially called him safe, but the Cubs asked for a video review.
“I thought I was safe,” Lobaton said.
Welcome to Washington. After consultation with officials in New York, Lobaton was ruled out, and the inning was over. Not long after, when Cubs reliever Wade Davis struck out Bryce Harper in the ninth, so was the season.
So D.C., you thought. So &$%#@! D.C. We might not have known the particulars. But we knew what was going to happen. Dread is in the air here. Deep breaths, everyone. Deep breaths.
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