An angst-filled park watched the Nationals' best pitcher arrive on the mound with a tenuous 4-3 lead in their favor, and hopes pinned to this Hall-of-Fame-bound man.
Here, we are going to contort history. Instead of Scherzer dealing with four consecutive plays that had never previously happened in the same half-inning in the history of baseball, he gets out of it. He does not give up four runs. The Nationals do not go on to lose another heart-breaker in the playoffs. It's a clean inning, which it was so close to being in reality.
First, let's remember what happened.
Scherzer throws Bryant three pitches en route to a ground out to short. Rizzo falls behind 0-2 when he fouls off a cutter, then fouls off a 96-mph fastball. An 0-2 changeup, which catches more of the plate than Scherzer would like, leads to a fly out in center field. Two outs.
Contreras is next. Scherzer is juiced.
A 97-mph is fouled off. A 98-mph fastball is fouled off. To this point, Scherzer has thrown eight pitches, seven strikes.
Contreras is a pull hitter. If he grounds out in 2017, it's often to the left side. But, Scherzer is now throwing 98 mph, making it more difficult, in theory, for Contreras to pull the ball hard. Despite this, Trea Turner is swung toward third instead of his regular shortstop spot.
Another 98-mph fastball comes and Contreras grounds it toward the middle. When the ball first comes off Contreras' bat, Turner isn't even in the television frame.
As soon as the ball is hammered into the ground not far in front of home plate, Scherzer turns, looks, then starts walking toward the dugout. It seems to be a sure out.
Instead, Turner is suddenly sprinting to his left. He slides to keep the ball in the infield. Contreras runs well for a catcher. The throw is well late and short. A step toward disaster just felt its first nudge. Four runs would eventually score. An intentional walk, reaching first base on a strikeout, reaching first base on catcher's interference and reaching first base on a hit by pitch all happen in order during the inning. They had never happened prior. It's a mess. They go on to lose.
In this version of reality, Turner is positioned more toward his typical spot. He takes two steps to his left, which brings his momentum toward first, and he gets off a hard throw. Contreras is sprinting, but is too late. Ryan Zimmerman stretches, snaps his glove down to steal an extra split-second like he does, Scherzer yells as the umpire signals out.
Baker has a decision. Send Scherzer back out? He decides to. Scherzer has thrown just nine pitches. Eight were strikes. His velocity is where it needs to be. Baker had to use one of the Nationals' most effective relievers that year -- Matt Albers -- merely to get to the fifth after Gio Gonzalez lasted just three wobbly innings.
Scherzer makes it through the sixth. The Nationals tack on in the bottom of the sixth. Looming are the results of midseason trades which made much of this possible: Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle. Baker has nine outs to acquire with those three pitchers. Thanks to Scherzer's mid-game work, Baker has out-maneuvered Joe Maddon and the Cubs. Washington goes on to win.
The relief is clear. An enormous exhale joins all the spraying booze in the clubhouse. Baker has done what other Nationals managers could not: won a playoff series.
The Nationals move into the National League Championship Series against Los Angeles. Though they lose in seven games, the advancement is enough to bring Baker back. He receives a new two-year deal in the offseason. Davey Martinez is hired by the Philadelphia Phillies instead of Gabe Kapler to start the 2018 season.
There are no camels, bumpy road speeches, no 19-31. The Nationals do, however, win the World Series in 2019. Baker decides to retire because he thinks this will move him into the Hall of Fame. Even if it doesn't, he at least accomplished what he has been pining for all these years. He goes down as the Nationals' longest-tenured manager and first to win a World Series.
Everyone flashed back to that Game 5. Baker mentions it was a step that helped them win in 2019. They learned to win a series before learning how to win it all. The relief appearance for Scherzer also emboldened Baker and the front office to deploy a key strategy on the way to the title: their top three starters were often used in relief during the postseason. The result is a ring and a parade.
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What if Max Scherzer had a clean fifth inning in Game 5 against the Cubs? originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington