Max Scherzer shed his red pullover in the Washington Nationals' bullpen at 9:36 p.m. on Thursday. It was time to warm up on a nippy night. He initiated his preparation with light throws, gradually extending the distance and increasing the intensity until he was crow hopping from the side. He then began throwing out of his windup off one of the two mounds beyond the wall in right field.
He emerged from the bullpen at 9:52 for his first relief appearance since the 2013 American League Division Series, when he was a member of the Detroit Tigers. He was announced a minute later to booming cheers as a disturbing graphic — zeroed in on his blue eye and brown eye — flickered on the video board. It was the fifth inning. The Nationals held a one-run lead, and they were turning to their best pitcher — a 33-year-old right-hander who has made a strong case for a second straight National League Cy Young Award — to shut down the Chicago Cubs for a couple innings three days after he delivered a gritty performance in Game 3 at Wrigley Field.
What ensued was the most bizarre and excruciating meltdown in Nationals postseason history, a peculiar series of events that paved the way for a 9-8 season-ending Game 5 loss.
"It was bizarro world," Cubs Manager Joe Maddon said after the game. "There's no doubt about it."
Scherzer began his night by retiring Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo — the Cubs' most dangerous hitters — on six pitches for two quick outs. He was attacking the strike zone, touching 98 mph on the radar gun. He was a suped-up Max Scherzer, and the tight right hamstring that delayed his postseason debut was long forgotten. Then, with two strikes, Willson Contreras hit a groundball up the middle. Shortstop Trea Turner, who was shifted toward third base for the pull-happy Contreras, ranged over to make a diving stop but his throw was late. Contreras, one of the fastest catchers in baseball, legged out an infield single.
"From there," Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said, "things went haywire."
Pinch-hitter Ben Zobrist, also facing two strikes, blooped a single to left field. Addison Russell then pounced on the first pitch he saw — an 85-mph change-up — and hit a groundball that tugged along the third-base line, just inside the bag and out of a diving Anthony Rendon's reach. Contreras and Zobrist scored.
"Some things like that happen and you just have to be able to deal with it," Scherzer said. "This game – you can execute pitches and sometimes that's not enough. You just got to keep going out there, stay within yourself and keep executing pitches. "
The Cubs had a 5-4 lead. It would grow with an even stranger sequence of events.
After Jayson Heyward was intentionally walked, Scherzer struck out the free-swinging Javier Baez on three pitches, finishing him off with a slider. It should have been the third out. But the ball bounced past catcher Matt Wieters, and instead of eating it, Wieters hurled a rushed throw into right field trying to throw Baez out at first base. The strikeout-passed-ball-E2 combination allowed Russell to score and moved Baez to second base.
Wieters immediately began pleading his case to umpires for interference, claiming Baez's backswing hit him. He had a case, but umpire Jerry Layne, the crew chief and also the game's home plate umpire, assembled his group to discuss the matter.
Nationals Manager Dusty Baker emerged to share his take to no avail. The crew decided not to change the call – not because the umpires didn't think Baez's bat hit Wieters, but because Layne ruled the backswing striking Wieters didn't have an impact on the play, though the rule's language doesn't indicate that judging the interference's impact is part of the call, only judging whether there was any inference at all.
"When the ball gets passed him, alright, in my judgment he didn't have any more opportunity after he had a chance to field the ball," Layne said. "There was no further play that could have been made on it. The graze of the helmet didn't have anything to do, in my judgment, with anything at all, with that particular play. I understand, it's pretty much my judgment. I got together and found everybody was in agreement. That's what we went with."
Interference isn't a reviewable play so the ruling stood without further evaluation. Fittingly, Tommy La Stella, pinch-hitting for pitcher Kyle Hendricks, was then awarded first base for catcher interference to load the bases before Scherzer plunked Jon Jay with a 1-1 cutter. Heyward scored to make it 7-4.
"They end up scoring in a hot mess," Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said. "That was probably one of the weirdest inning I've ever seen."
Scherzer finally secured that elusive third out, getting Bryant, the reigning NL MVP, to hit a pop fly on his 28th pitch. Bryant and Rizzo combined to go 0 for 3 in the inning. The other seven Cubs batters reached base on three hits, an intentional walk, a strikeout, and a hit by pitch. The Nationals gave the ball to Scherzer with great confidence. They were going with their best. They went down with it in the most inexplicable of ways.
"I'm sure I've been in some crazy stuff before," Scherzer said, "but nothing like that."
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Box score: Cubs 9, Nationals 8