Nationals, Cubs witness cruelty and glory of baseball in one incredible game

WASHINGTON – Layer by layer, he stripped away the reminders of this night he won’t soon forget. First the shirt. Then the socks. Then the compression pants. Every piece of clothing Bryce Harper removed went not into a nearby laundry basket but the silver trashcan feet from his locker. Resting on top of the pile was his Washington Nationals cap, off to a nameless trash dump somewhere, buried like his season.

It was 1:15 a.m. ET Friday, 30 minutes after a crazy, amazing, maddening, hilarious, upside-down, brilliant, stupid, infuriating, exhilarating, entertaining baseball game barreled on for 277 chaotic minutes. The Chicago Cubs had vanquished the Nationals 9-8 in the winner-takes-all Game 5 of their National League Division Series, and as the Cubs emptied beer and bubbly on one another amid plumes of cigar smoke and fountains of ribaldry, the prevailing soundtrack in the Nationals’ clubhouse was the clasping of hands that preceded hugs of consolation.

They were saying their goodbyes after another disappointment, the sort long reserved for the Cubs, who advanced to their third consecutive NL Championship Series and may want to bequeath their Lovable Losers sobriquet on the Nationals. Just when the franchise’s October disappointment had seemed to reach its nadir in two previous Game 5 division series losses at home, the Nationals plumbed new ways to scrape the depths of defeat. The crowd of 43,849 at Nationals Park arrived ready to celebrate the first postseason series win in team history, beamed as Washington jumped to an early lead, recoiled amid the black comedy of a half-inning never before seen among the millions played in the major leagues, enlivened at the slow burn of a comeback and swooned as their nightmare played out in the early hours of Friday the 13th.

“Just gut-punched again,” Nationals ace Max Scherzer said. “Here we are in Game 5. Play our hearts out. Everybody lays it on the line. Everybody’s fighting to do everything they can. It was a nail-biter game again. It just sucks because I know how hard everyone played. This game’s cruel sometimes the way things can happen.”

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras begins to celebrate after the Nationals’ Bryce Harper struck out swinging in the ninth inning. (AP)
Cubs catcher Willson Contreras begins to celebrate after the Nationals’ Bryce Harper struck out swinging in the ninth inning. (AP)

Cruel is a fair descriptor. Scherzer, one of the baseball’s most cerebral players, struggled to piece together words to describe how Game 5 careened to this dark place. He started a thought: “Just …” And he raised his hands from his hips once, twice, three times and four, as if to exhibit his point, and he said it again: “Just …” Nothing else came out.

Just baseball, he could’ve said, and he’d have been right. The game does this. It mends hearts just as it’s breaking them. It fortifies will just as it’s fracturing it. It lifts to the highest mountains and lowers to the dimmest caverns. It is as predictable as a thousand-sided die. It’s those permutations that give it such beauty, even amid some of the ugliness that permeated the actual play of Game 5.

It started like most games this postseason, with a run in the first inning. The Cubs, who entered the game hitting .159 in the series and had scored eight runs in the first four games, manufactured a run on a groundout, foreshadowing an evening of unconventional scoring. The Nationals clapped back with a pair of home runs in the second inning and jumped to a 4-1 lead. Chicago answered with runs on a groundout and wild pitch, and by that point it was clear: Neither Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez nor Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks was long for Game 5.

In came the parade of relief pitching, none more ballyhooed than Scherzer. Coming off a brilliant Game 3 performance, Scherzer, who had been nursing a bum hamstring, was pitching out of the bullpen for the first time since the 2013 playoffs. He quickly recorded two outs in the fifth inning, running his fastball up to 99 mph. Then baseball happened.

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras whacked an infield single. Ben Zobrist, the MVP from the Cubs’ curse-breaking World Series win last year, came off the bench to loop a pinch-hit single into center field. Addison Russell sizzled a double past third baseman Anthony Rendon to score Contreras and Zobrist. It was 5-4. Those were the only two runs the Cubs would score all night on a clean hit.

What happened next never before had happened in baseball’s recorded history, not once in the 2.7 million half-innings in’s database. First Nationals manager Dusty Baker intentionally walked Jason Heyward. When the next batter, Javier Baez, swung over a Scherzer slider for strike three, his bat conked catcher Matt Wieters on the head as the ball slipped through his legs. Wieters raced back, grabbed the ball and unleashed a wild throw into right field. Russell scored and Heyward raced to third.

Wieters immediately griped to home-plate umpire Jerry Layne, who later told The Washington Post he had seen the contact with Wieters’ head but judged it did not impede the play. Whether Layne could have called a dead ball, thus ending the inning without the run scoring, remained unclear, as the arcane baseball rulebook didn’t make it clear whether Rule 6.01, which would regard Baez as a baserunner, or Rule 6.03, which still sees him as the batter, applied. Layne was steadfast that it was a judgment call and he made the proper one. Wieters regretted all of it.

“I was kind of upset that I didn’t block it,” he said, “and then I compounded the error.”

It worsened when pinch hitter Tommy LaStella’s bat hit Wieters’ glove in the next at-bat, giving him first base via catcher’s interference, and Scherzer yanked an 89-mph cutter that caromed off the foot of the next hitter, Jon Jay. Another run scored, pushing the Cubs ahead, 7-4, and leaving the Nationals wondering what could’ve been had Layne rendered a different sort of judgment.

The confluence of events nevertheless provided a reminder that this Cubs team, like last year’s, does not crumble at the first glance of trouble. It scraps and claws and spirits runs across the plate, aesthetics be damned. They’d won a World Series last year in an affair similar to this, Game 7, which had devolved into anarchy before coalescing into ecstasy. They were prepared to do the same Thursday and, eventually, Friday.

“Our guys,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said, “are not going to be denied.”

Not after Chicago’s lead, which swelled to 8-4 when Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth lost a Russell shot to left field in the lights, was halved as Washington scored a pair of runs in the sixth. Not as it got a run back in the seventh on a groundout, its third such of the game. Not when the bases were loaded in the bottom of the seventh and up stepped Harper.

He is the face of the Nationals, maybe of the sport, 24 years old and big and powerful and aching for this sort of moment to define himself beyond his individual accomplishments. Harper is great. The Nationals have been everywhere but October. And though Harper lofted a Jose Quintana curveball deep enough to score Michael A. Taylor on a sacrifice fly and cut the Cubs’ lead to 9-7, this wasn’t the memorable stamp he craved. He would need to wait for that.

Harper wasn’t the only one who cared to imprint himself on this game. The Cubs’ bullpen door swung open for the third time in the seventh, and in trotted Wade Davis, their closer. There were two outs. Maddon was calling on him for a seven-out save the night after he’d allowed a grand slam to Taylor in a brutal Game 4 loss at Wrigley Field. Davis had summoned incredible performances in past postseasons. On the way to the Kansas City Royals securing their first championship in 30 years, he entered a game, waited out a rain delay and closed it out an hour later. Never, though, had he endeavored to finish a game with seven outs.

“That’s the thing about Wade,” Hendricks said. “His mental preparation, everything he does day to day, prepares him for every moment. He knew what we needed from him today, and he had no questions about it.”

With runners on first and second, he dispensed of Ryan Zimmerman with a kamikaze cut fastball. That was one. He returned to the dugout, cognizant he’d need six more. His teammates knew as much, too.

“I try to steer clear of him,” Cubs starter Jon Lester said. “I don’t know if he’s going to kill me or if he’s excited that he’s out of the game. I’m like, ‘We’ll talk about deer tomorrow.’ ”

The eighth inning beckoned. Davis walked the first two batters. Then he induced a first-pitch, double-play groundball from pinch hitter Adam Lind, a notorious slayer of right-handed pitchers. That was two and three. The next out wouldn’t be easy. Taylor singled home Murphy. It was 9-8. Catcher Jose Lobaton, in for the veteran Wieters after a double switch, singled. On a 1-1 count to leadoff hitter Trea Turner, Davis buried a cutter low and away. And immediately, Contreras pivoted his body toward first base and whipped a throw.

First baseman Anthony Rizzo snapped the tag. Umpire Will Little called Lobaton safe. Maddon challenged. Lobaton had slid feet-first, and though he beat the tag, his foot came off the base for the slightest millisecond, too quick for the human eye to catch, perfect for instant replay to sniff out. Lobaton was out. Rizzo hopped off the field, ebullient. Lobaton stood still, practically frozen, only for his jaw chomping up and down on a piece of gum that bore the brunt of his blunder. That was four.

“It was,” Baker said, “a series of bad events.”

In the immediate aftermath of the game, Baker sat before a microphone, stupefied by what he’d just seen, almost in a daze. He had managed the Cubs to the cusp of a World Series and failed to make it after managing the San Francisco Giants to a World Series and failing there, too. And the collective weight of these failures fell on him like an anvil on Wile E. Coyote. Among the 390 words Baker spoke, “a series of bad events” came up three times, almost like a rationalization for what had happened. Because while the seventh and eight innings were loud, the ninth offered but a whisper.

Turner lofted a lazy fly ball. That was five. Werth swung through a 95-mph fastball. That was six. Davis sat at 38 pitches, the most he’d thrown since 2015. And stepping to the plate was the man who had waited for this: Bryce Harper. He waved over a cutter for strike one, stared at a curveball for ball one, fouled off a fastball for strike two, took one fastball, then another, to force the count full. Davis throws three pitches, each nasty in its own way. Contreras called cutter. Davis unleashed a 90-mph version that broke under Harper’s bat. That was seven. He was one of 12 relief pitchers on the night. He provided more relief than the rest combined.

Contreras turned to the Cubs’ dugout and pumped his fist. Davis leaned over, gassed, then clapped his glove three times. As a perfect complement to the American League Championship Series’ New York vs. Houston matchup, Chicago would move on to face Los Angeles in the NLCS, the four biggest cities in the United States duking it out for a championship, all because Wade Davis, the only pitcher Maddon trusted, summoned greatness in a moment the Nationals couldn’t.

“That’s a bad mother[expletive], bro,” Lester said. “That’s a bad dude.”

Inside the Cubs’ clubhouse, the celebration felt like more than a typical division series party. Maddon called it “one of the most incredible victories I’ve ever been a part of,” a sentiment others shared. The crazy inning. The back-pick. Davis. All of it felt bigger, like the start of something, even if the Cubs know by now that each series is its own struggle, independent of the last or next.

“Two-thirty bus!” shouted Vijay Tekchandani, the man in charge of corralling the drunken mass of men and getting them onto a flight to Los Angeles on which the party surely continued.

Back across the field, the Nationals tried to offer one another solace in a moment each knew none existed. Baker and Nationals GM Mike Rizzo went from locker to locker, thanking the players for another NL East title that had fizzled when it mattered most. They walked gingerly on the temporary carpet that was duct taped over the room’s regular floor. It was there for the celebration that was supposed to be. Nobody bothered to remove it.

All that was left were reminders and laments and questions. Baker doesn’t have a contract for next season. Maybe he’ll return. Maybe he won’t. Harper is a free agent after next year. Maybe he’ll re-sign. Maybe he won’t. As good as the Nationals’ core is, as much talent as they have, it’s increasingly tough not to wonder whether this group can reach its apex. The ruthlessness of the postseason wears on the psyche.

The Cubs celebrate after beating the Nationals 9-8 to advance to the National League Championship Series. (AP)
The Cubs celebrate after beating the Nationals 9-8 to advance to the National League Championship Series. (AP)

“They all burn,” Scherzer said. “This one burns. I don’t know how else to describe it. You’re just gonna be sitting there kicking yourself the whole offseason.”

Already it was happening. An hour after the game was over, Harper, Werth and Wieters sat in the far end of the clubhouse, talking about whether the Baez backswing should have resulted in a dead ball and what that would have meant. This game, they were saying. It was crazy. It was madness. It was … more of the same.

Murphy limped toward them, and reliever Ryan Madson toted around his son, and clubhouse attendants cleaned up the detritus of another loss, and the laundry that hadn’t been deposited in the garbage can whirled in the industrial machines adjacent to the clubhouse, and the sting of another October loss hung in the air, acrid and unrelenting.

“See ya next year,” a voice called out, the harshest reminder yet of baseball’s cruelty, which would be too much if only the glory of winning wasn’t so sweet. That’s what will bring them back, bring them to this place again, bring the Washington Nationals to the precipice of what they can be in hopes they finally will.

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