Temporary carpet covered the Washington Nationals clubhouse after their 9-8 loss to the Chicago Cubs in Game 5 of the National League Division Series Thursday night. Clubhouse staff installed it to protect against the bubbly spoils of victory. But as the Nationals began to process their fourth loss in four NLDS tries, nothing could protect them from the finality of defeat. The most promising playoff chance in their history went the way of all the others.
Jayson Werth stood against his locker, his gluten-free beer an inadequate consolation against the reality of what happened to his Nationals in a game they led, then trailed, then seemed destined to tie in the later innings.
“Usually there are four or five plays that change the landscape of a game,” Werth said. “In this one, I felt like there were 50.”
Over 4 hours and 37 minutes Thursday night, the Cubs and Nationals bludgeoned one another through the longest nine-inning game in playoff history. Over and over, disaster struck the Nationals – the disaster that always strikes the Nationals this time of year. Over and over, they climbed back in.
Hope and history wrestled for the Nationals’ fate all night, as their traditional postseason debacle and a newfound October grit beat their guts back and forth. Neither debacle nor grit won out. Wade Davis struck out Bryce Harper, and that was it, an anticlimactic ending to a season that seemed likely to hold so much more – and nearly did. They accumulated 23 base runners and lost. The Cubs went 1 for 11 with runners in scoring position and won.
Maybe the manner of defeat doesn’t matter anymore. This organization is now beyond playoff consolation. But that for all the mistakes and opportunities missed, these Nationals came within one run, got the tying run to the plate over and over…
“A gut punch,” Max Scherzer said.
The tiny margin of error over the course of such a massive baseball undertaking left Scherzer pacing around the clubhouse unable to find the words and Matt Wieters sitting at his locker, staring at that bright beige carpet, and sent Werth to a clubhouse wall to rest his head there for a moment, exhausted by it all.
“For that to happen, it feels like everything that could go wrong did,” Werth said. “And we were still right there.”
After the Nationals built a one-run lead by the fifth inning, Scherzer charged into the bullpen, the game-changing savior, the Cy Young solution to a bullpen problem that is a half-decade old. Under his watch, a chaotic inning featured a walk, a hit by pitch, a ground-ball double and an error, passed ball and interference from Wieters, as the Nationals’ lead became a three-run deficit. He could hardly comprehend it.
“This game’s cruel sometimes,” said Scherzer, as quietly as the fiery righty can speak and still be heard. “Just the way things can happen.”
Cruelty struck Werth, too. The 37-year-old has been clear about what this season means to him and his perspective on his time as a National – everything. He wanted to win. When he struggled offensively early in the series, the stats suggested Dusty Baker should pull him. Baker chose experience over stats, and Werth provided two hits and two walks.
He also lost a ball in the lights that led to a humiliating run, and said later he could count on his hands the number of times that happened to him here in seven years. That it happened now, well – that’s just how things always seem to go.
“It’s terrible. I hate it,” said Werth, who was on deck when what looked destined to be a game-tying rally in the eighth disintegrated because slow-motion replay determined Jose Lobaton’s foot left the first base bag for a split second.
Those are the kind of moments this team is used to in October, the gut-wrenching, uncharacteristic turns of events that seem always to doom them. What made this game so hard to process, so inconclusive about what they must fix moving forward, was that the Nationals provided so many reasons to hope.
After being dormant offensively much of the series, the Nationals exploded for eight runs on 14 hits. They also left 13 men on base, any one of whom might have changed their fate. As the Cubs kept rallying, so did the Nationals, who pushed the tying run to the plate in every inning after Scherzer’s demise. But mistakes cost them enough that eight runs were not enough. In a game like this, they should have been.
“We didn’t play a very good game,” said Baker, somber and sullen in the immediate aftermath, but seemingly revived somewhat as he doled out hugs and handshakes to his players afterward.
“It really hurts to lose like that, especially after what we went through all year long.”
Baker is not under contract next year, his status uncertain though he and team officials have expressed a desire to reunite in 2018. Baker’s teams have now lost 10 straight games in which they had a chance to advance. The Nationals have now won their division four times in six years. They have won 95 games four times in six years. And they have now lost all four games they have played with a chance to advance to the National League Championship Series.
This time, they were close. They did not collapse and they did not concede. But they fell short again, with no glaring flaw to fix, no one moment to blame. The Nationals will head into a long winter pondering what can be better in the future, inhibited in their assessment by the notion Werth articulated as he choked through what might have been his final postgame interview as a Washington National: “I can’t believe we lost that game.”
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