Sport NLDS Game 5: How the Nationals' season unraveled in a matter of minutes

17:21  13 october  2017
17:21  13 october  2017 Source:   USA TODAY SPORTS

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To find out more about Facebook commenting please read the Conversation Guidelines and FAQs. Fifth-inning fever: How the Nationals ' season unraveled in a matter of NLDS Game 5 : Cubs at Nationals - Cubs' Jon Jay slides into Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy in the seventh inning.

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WASHINGTON — Thirty-eight baseball players participated in Thursday night’s Game 5 of the National League Division Series, Chicago Cubs and Washington Nationals who collectively played tens of thousands of innings leading to this, an elimination game in the prime of their athletic careers.

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And it’s likely none of them ever witnessed a season-turning half-inning like Thursday's top of the fifth, a fever dream within a 4-hour, 37-minute hallucination of baseball at Nationals Park.

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Not in Little League, or high school or the low minors. And certainly not in a winner-take-all game where two dominant franchises’ courses collided, one going home, the other to giddily fly west to take on the Los Angeles Dodgers.

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“I’m sure I’ve been in some crazy stuff before,” said Max Scherzer, the Washington Nationals ace whose fifth-inning entrance electrified his home crowd of 43,849, “but that’s crazy baseball.”

His Nationals would go on to lose this game, 9-8, and see their season end shy of the NL Championship Series for the fourth time in six years.

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It’s a result they scarcely could have imagined when they held a 4-3 lead, handed the ball to Scherzer for the top of the fifth and readied to count down the outs to the NLCS.

When it was over, they trailed 7-4, and would never catch the Cubs.

What happened to flip that result nearly defies description - even for the protagonists.

A commanding entrance

The outfield message board flashed a vision of Scherzer’s monochromatic eyes as he jogged in from the bullpen to start the fifth. Gio Gonzalez and Matt Albers gutted through four innings and now, here was manager Dusty Baker’s power move: Scherzer for an inning or two, bridging the gap to the Nationals’ top relievers.

“Shoot, I’ve been in the other dugout when Max comes out of the bullpen. It’s not a good feeling,” says Nationals closer Sean Doolittle. “He was getting ahead of guys, he looked like he was in control, he had really good stuff.”

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Ninety-eight mph stuff, to be precise. Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, the heart of the Cubs' order, succumbed quickly.

“Some of the most electric stuff I’ve seen him have,” says Nationals catcher Matt Wieters. “Two outs, it looks great.”

The bases were empty, and Scherzer fired 97 and 98 mph strikes to corner Cubs catcher Willson Contreras. One more for a clean inning.

Just make contact

That Scherzer was relieving on two days’ rest after a dominant Game 3 start had little effect on his stuff. That it was so fresh in the Cubs’ minds did matter.

Down to his final strike, Contreras flashed back to Game 3.

“Two days ago, he walked me, and I know he doesn’t like to walk people. I was ready for the fastball down and away, and he put it up. I just put the ball in play.”

A well-placed grounder up the middle, with shortstop Trea Turner playing him to pull.

One on, two out, and Ben Zobrist - benched for Game 5 with the lefty Gonzalez starting - already knew manager Joe Maddon's script: When Scherzer's in, he's in for Albert Almora.

Scherzer gave up his lone Game 3 run on an opposite-field double by Zobrist, a sequence that hovered over this at-bat.

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This time, Scherzer was determined not to throw him a fastball away, and allow Zobrist to extend his arms and rip it into the gap again. He stayed up and over the plate, executing his pitch, but Zobrist dropped it once again into left field.

Two on, two out, and No. 7 batter Addison Russell: “You look out there and you see Scherzer and you think one of the best, if not the best pitcher. And he's coming in the middle of the game, and you have to change your game plan.”

Turns out Scherzer did him a favor, throwing him a first-pitch changeup.

Wieters: “We had some success with it in the past. It was just a little up.”

And it sped up Russell’s bat: He ripped a double down the left field line.

“Just move the runners,” he said. “And ended up driving in two runs.”

The Cubs had the lead. Nationals Park was stunned. The worst was yet to come.

Wieters’ worst night

Nationals catcher Matt Wieters receives a clarification from umpire Jerry Lane as Addison Russell scores the Cubs' sixth run following Wieters' error.© Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP Nationals catcher Matt Wieters receives a clarification from umpire Jerry Lane as Addison Russell scores the Cubs' sixth run following Wieters' error.

Baker interjected at this point, intentionally walking Jason Heyward. The free-swinging Javy Baez was next, and after Baez flailed at strike three, Baker was vindicated.

“Down (5-4)," says Wieters, pausing the tape in his mind, "I like our chances there.”

It would not be 5-4.

Scherzer’s slider in the dirt shot underneath Wieters for a passed ball. As Baez scampered toward first, Wieters desperately wanted to throw him out.

“I was upset with myself for not blocking it,” Wieters said, “and then compounded it with the error.”

His throw to first sailed wide of first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and into the outfield.

6-4.

Light-hitting Tommy La Stella hit for Kyle Hendricks. Scherzer pumped another first-pitch strike, but two pitches later, La Stella's swing clipped Wieters’ glove. Catcher’s interference.

The bases were loaded. The crowd was murmuring. Scherzer insists he shut out the circus around him: “Nothing in my head was getting sideways. I was able to collect my thoughts, and really think about what I wanted to execute, what the next pitch would be.”

But with his pitch count now into the 20s, execution was elusive: A cutter struck Jon Jay on the leg. Heyward trotted home.

7-4, and a most unlikely superfecta: Passed ball, throwing error, catcher’s interference, bases-loaded hit-by-pitch.

“It was a bad time to have one of the worst defensive nights of my career,” mused Wieters. “It will be a while to get over (plays) I didn’t make tonight.”

Moving on

Amid the plumes of cigar smoke and Budweiser-soaked carpet down the hall, Zobrist aimed for perspective.

“The gravity of the moment…combined with all the weird things that happened.. The challenges, the catcher's interference, the errors. A lot of funky things.”

“Bizarro world,” said Maddon.

They can afford to chuckle. Game 1 of the NLCS is Saturday. The Cubs have no idea who’s starting Game 1  – or Game 2 – and they’ll wake up Friday morning not particularly concerned about it, either.

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Game-time decisions, even unpleasant ones, trump a winter of what-ifs every time.

“I just couldn’t find a way to get that last out,” said Scherzer.

“He’s one of the best in the big leagues,” says Contreras, “but we beat him today.”

Contributing: Scott Boeck and Steve Gardner

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