CHICAGO — These are the afternoons that lead one to wonder whether some grander conspiracy is at work. These are the moments when one can imagine the baseball fates, wherever they reside, had a meeting at which they cackled as they decided among themselves that the Washington Nationals would suffer in some cruel purgatory, given just enough hope to believe, given just enough adversity to succumb.
So it was that Jeremy Hellickson found himself cruising into the sixth inning with a no-hitter Friday at Wrigley Field. Then he suddenly hit a wall that knocked his command into the ether, and he walked three straight. As Brandon Kintzler warmed in the Chicago Cubs’ bullpen, those trying to fill his spot in the Nationals’ bullpen created a bases-loaded jam and walked in the go-ahead run in the seventh.
And when the Nationals rallied in the eighth, rookie Juan Soto got picked off in the same way Jose Lobaton did in Game 5 of last October’s National League Division Series. Their rookie manager, the former bench coach of the Cubs who celebrated a warm and emotional homecoming Friday morning, saw his team fall, 3-2. At 59-57, it stands 5½ games back of Philadelphia and Atlanta in the NL East, with the Braves (63-50, .558) leading the Phillies (64-51, .557) by a percentage point.
“That was a tough loss,” Dave Martinez said. “That was a tough one.”
Every team has history with Wrigley Field. If every series is important for this team now, this one is something more — a test of its playoff readiness and a reminder of what it’s like to play here when it counts. For the Nationals, the more salient memories happen to be the recent ones.
The last time the Nationals were here, with Dusty Baker (also a former Cub) as their manager, they left Chicago after a 5-0 victory hopeful that the situation might be different at Nationals Park in the decisive Game 5. It was not.
Instead, everything is different in 2018. Instead of cruising to a division title, they are struggling. And instead of Joe Ross or A.J. Cole or one of the many others who have auditioned for the fifth starter’s spot over the past few years, the Nationals are now using Hellickson, who walked the first man he faced, then did not allow another Cubs player to reach until the sixth.
With two outs in the sixth, he walked Anthony Rizzo after a 13-pitch at-bat — an at-bat in which catcher Spencer Kieboom dropped two foul-tip strikes that would have ended it. The margin for error for this team is slim.
Visibly fatigued, Hellickson then walked Javier Baez on four pitches. Then he walked Ben Zobrist on four pitches, at which point Martinez went to the mound. Hellickson told him he was gassed, though Martinez had already discerned as much. He pulled him from the game, from an active no-hitter — and far from that being the wrong decision, one could argue Martinez made it a batter too late.
“I just can’t walk guys right there,” said Hellickson, shaking his head over and over in the clubhouse after the game. “It just can’t happen that way. I’ve got to make them put the ball in play.”
Martinez chose Sammy Solis to face left-handed Jason Heyward. His other left-handed option is Matt Grace, less of a strikeout-stuff guy than Solis. Solis fell behind Heyward 2-0. Heyward singled up the middle to tie the score, the first hit of the day for the Cubs. Left-handed hitters are hitting .273 against him. Right-handed hitters are hitting .213.
“He understands that his job is to get lefties out. He’s got to get lefties out,” Martinez said. “He’s going to get put in situations to do that, so he’s got to understand that.”
As Solis was struggling, Kintzler, a Nationals reliever until last month’s trade deadline, was warming for the Cubs. It was an insult-to-injury moment that seemed in keeping with the changing feel of the afternoon. The man they signed to effectively take his spot, Greg Holland, relieved Solis and surrendered enough hard contact to fill the bases.
Martinez does not have many choices now, not with Sean Doolittle and Kelvin Herrera injured and Ryan Madson needed to close. This team is weaker in the bullpen now, the one place it was supposed to be stronger. As Kintzler warmed, Holland walked in the go-ahead run.
“You’re trying to throw a well-executed pitch and hopefully get a double play. I just fell behind,” Holland said. “The last few pitches of that sequence, I didn’t throw where I wanted to, obviously.”
But then Kintzler walked Bryce Harper and Soto, as if fate were forgiving this team again. Then Soto got picked off first base in the same way, in the same inning, by Willson Contreras — the same catcher who picked off Lobaton in the NLDS last year. Martinez and his coaches had warned Soto that Contreras likes to back-pick — to throw behind the trail runner with multiple men on base. Soto thought Rizzo was in his way getting back to the base. Martinez told him that can’t matter.
“I feel pretty bad because you want to help the team the most you can,” Soto said. “Just learn about that and keep going.”
The rally sputtered. The Nationals didn’t score and finished their 19th game of the season a run away from a different fate. All they can do, as their manager and players say over and over, is keep playing. But if they want to change their destiny, they must start playing differently soon.
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