WASHINGTON — It has become an annual tradition here, taking its place alongside the arrival of cherry blossoms and the pardoning of Thanksgiving turkeys. Once again, the crestfallen Nationals retreated to a clubhouse outfitted for a celebration, except not one drop of champagne would be spilled.
Instead, after a 9-8 loss to the Cubs in Game 5 of the National League Division Series on Thursday night, the Nationals shuffled atop the cheap carpet installed to protect the plush flooring beneath. They spoke in hushed tones about an inning from hell, about missed chances, about a series-deciding game that brought a winter’s worth of bile and bitterness.
“This game’s cruel sometimes,” said Max Scherzer, the two-time Cy Young Award winner who faltered when pressed to protect a lead in relief.
Indeed, the Nationals seized an early 4-1 advantage, then fumbled their way through a disastrous fifth inning. From there, with their season on the line, with their wretched postseason history tied to their backs like an anchor, they nearly turned all of their misfortune into a defining moment for a franchise that has never known October glory.
But the season turned on the last of a series of critical mistakes. Moments after Nationals catcher Jose Lobaton singled to place the tying run in scoring position in the eighth, he was picked off on a snap throw by Cubs counterpart Willson Contreras to end the inning.
Initially, Lobaton was ruled safe. Replay showed his foot came off the bag. With that, the Nationals authored yet another horrific chapter in their history.
“That’s what it feels like right now, a missed opportunity,” Daniel Murphy said.
For the third straight season, the Cubs advanced to the National League Championship Series, led by Addison Russell’s four RBIs. They moved on despite a treacherous nine innings that required a total of 38 players over 4 hours, 37 minutes, ending with weary closer Wade Davis nailing down the first seven-out save of his career.
The Nationals’ Michael A. Taylor knocked in four runs, including a three-run homer that gave his team the lead in the second and an RBI single in the eighth that sliced the deficit to one run. But it wasn’t enough to undo the calamity of a mistake-filled fifth.
“We’re just going to be sitting there kicking yourself the whole offseason,” Scherzer said.
The Nationals have reached the Division Series four times in the last six years. For all their brilliance, they have never advanced, with the cruelty of that fate becoming official this time when Bryce Harper struck out. The Cubs stormed the mound before packing their bags for an NLCS date with the Dodgers.
One night after his grand slam iced Game 4, Taylor’s three-run shot in the second gave the Nationals a 4-1 lead. Scherzer took over in the fifth with a 4-3 advantage, his jog from the rightfield bullpen sending a surge through Nationals Park. Moments later, he was pumping 98 mph, the adrenaline pushing him through only his second outing since he injured his hamstring on Sept. 30.
With two outs, he got to two strikes against Contreras, who reached on an infield single. Ben Zobrist laced a pinch-hit single and Russell lashed a two-run double to give the Cubs a 5-4 lead. Then things got weird.
Jason Heyward was intentionally walked even though he already had stranded four runners. Javier Baez reached after a passed ball on a strikeout, with Matt Wieters making the play even worse by throwing wide of first and gifting the Cubs a run — on what might have been a dead ball. Baez’s bat appeared to strike Wieters on his backswing, which by rule would have been a dead ball had plate umpire Jerry Layne seen it.
The inning devolved further when pinch hitter Tommy LaStella reached on an interference by Wieters. Scherzer capped the strange sequence by plunking Jon Jay on the leg with the bases loaded, forcing in a run for a 7-4 lead.
Russell’s run-scoring double in the sixth made it 8-4, but Murphy’s RBI double in the bottom of the inning capped a two-run rally that brought the Nationals within 8-6. Harper’s sacrifice fly in the seventh made it 9-7 and Taylor added an RBI single with two outs in the eighth. Lobaton’s single put runners on first and second before Contreras picked him off.
For this tortured franchise, it ultimately was a sin too great to erase.
“They all burn,” Scherzer said, his voice muffled in a quiet clubhouse. “This one burns.”