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October 13, 2017 [LINK / comment]

Nats suffer another NLDS heartbreaker

When the Washington Nationals won Game 4 on Wednesday night to bring the National League Division Series back home, it seemed like they had the Chicago Cubs on the ropes. Stephen Strasburg pitched one of the very best games of his career, striking out twelve batters without allowing any runs (and only three hits) over seven utterly dominant innings at Wrigley Field. After years of doubts as to whether the decision to keep him off the roster in the 2012 postseason (when he was still recovering from Tommy John surgery) would ever really pay off, Strasburg vindicated himself in true superstar fashion. A cosmic convergence of opportunity and a burning desire to win had the Nationals poised for their very first postseason series triumph since the franchise "rebirth" in 2005!

Stephen Strasburg

The heroic Stephen Strasburg at Nationals Park on September 29, when he won his 15th game of the season pitching against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But just like last year, "something (or things plural) utterly improbable and unpredictable decided a high-stakes baseball showdown in NLDS Game 5 on Thursday evening, as the {Cubs} came back from a {4-1} deficit in the top of the {fifth} inning and held on to defeat the Washington Nationals, {9-8}." If that sounds familiar, it's because I copied the text from my October 14 blog post last year and put the appropriate modifications in {brackets}. Four years ago, the St. Louis Cardinals likewise came back from a deep deficit to stun the Nationals in the top of the ninth inning. (In the 2014 NLDS, the Nats were eliminated by the Giants on the road in Game 4, under relatively "normal" circumstances.) I shun superstitious talk of jinxes and curses, but the repeated pattern of "Nightmares on South Capitol Street" does kind of make you wonder what keeps going wrong.

The game got off to a disturbing start when Jon Jay hit a leadoff double, and later scored. Gio Gonzalez was obviously nervous, throwing the ball wildly several times. He finally got out of a bases-loaded jam when Jason Heyward grounded out to first base. In the bottom of the first, Trea Turner hit a leadoff infield single, stole second, and made it to third on a sac fly by Jayson Werth, but was then thrown out at the plate on a ground ball to second base hit by Bryce Harper.

Gio settled down in the second inning, getting three quick outs. Then Daniel Murphy stepped up to the plate and quickly smashed a home run into the right field seats, and the crowd was thrilled. Anthony Rendon then singled, Wieters laid down a perfect bunt along the third base line, and Michael A. Taylor swung at a pitch that was at least at neck level. Sometimes he lacks discipline, but this time he managed to put enough wood on that ball to send it into the left field bullpen. A three-run homer! And the crowd went wild!! After the next two batters struck out, Jayson Werth hit a double to the right-center field gap, and Bryce Harper was intentionally walked. It was a big opportunity for Ryan Zimmerman to get some more runs in, but he struck out.

In the third inning, Gio started having problems again. Kris Bryant hit a leadoff double, and after two more walks, the bases were loaded. Bryant scored on a ground ball hit by Addison Russell, and then a wild pitch by Gio allowed Contreras to score, making it a 4-3 game. Gio has a reputation for not being able to maintain leads, and Dusty Baker rightly decided that was enough pitching for Gio that day. In the fourth inning, Matt Albers got three quick outs.

Fifth inning nightmare

"What's the worst that could happen?" We may have found out in the fifth inning, as Max Scherzer took the mound. I knew that Max was available for emergency relief duty, but this situation just didn't seem to warrant resorting to such extreme measures. (See my Facebook comment below.) As expected, Max Scherzer quickly got two outs, but then he had to battle Willson Contreras to a full count, ultimately giving up an infield single. That's when all hell broke loose. So, just as I did in 2012 (for the ninth inning of NLDS Game 5), here is the complete play-by-play sequence for the Cubs in the bizarre, "stranger-than-fiction" fifth inning:

  1. Kris Bryant grounds out to shortstop.
  2. Anthony Rizzo flies out to center field.
  3. Willson Contreras hits a single to shortstop.
  4. Ben Zobrist hits bloop single to left field.
  5. Addison Russell doubles to left field corner, Contreras and Zobrist score.
  6. Jason Heyward is intentionally walked.
  7. Javier Baez strikes out but reaches base on passed ball*; throw from catcher to 1st base goes into right field, and Russell scores while others advance to 2nd and 3rd.
  8. Tommy La Stella is awarded first base on catcher interference, loading the bases.
  9. Jon Jay is hit by a pitch, Heyward scores, and others advance.
  10. Kris Bryant pops out to shortstop.

* = controversial play; see below.

I simply could not believe what was unfolding before my eyes on TV. Highly-paid professional players were panicking and blundering like Little Leagers. Russell's double gave the Cubs the lead which they would not relinquish, putting the Nats' ace pitcher Max Scherzer in line to become the losing pitcher. Just like in 2012 and 2016, the Nats went from having a comfortable lead to finding themselves in a desperate hole in a virtual blink of an eye.

Matt Wieters

Matt Wieters at Nationals Park on September 29.

Back & forth slugfest

The Cubs added a run in the sixth inning, as Brandon Kintzler gave up a walk and then another RBI double by Addison Russell. After that point, the Nationals finally regained their wits and started displaying their renowned offensive prowess. With two outs, Jayson Werth drew a walk and Bryce Harper doubled. Then Ryan Zimmerman walked, with ball four being a wild pitch, allowing Werth to sprint home to score. The next batter, Daniel Murphy hit a high fly ball that landed right at the left field wall. Harper scored but Zimmerman was held up at third. I wondered why he wasn't waved home, and after watching the MLB TV abbreviated rebroadcast today, I could see it was a combination of Zimmerman's short lead at first and a well-played carom off the wall by Ben Zobrist. With the score now 8-6, Anthony Rendon was intentionally walked, and Matt Wieters came up to bat. Wieters has had a disappointing year since the Nationals signed him last spring, but he did get two hits in the early innings, including that bunt along the third base line. This time he punched a fly ball to the right field corner, and Jason Heyward was just able to get there in time for the third out. It could have been two or three runs for the Nationals...

The Cubs scored again in the seventh inning, as Sammy Solis gave up two consecutive hits -- just like he did in Game 3. Next! Dusty Baker challenged the call on the run-scoring play, arguing that Jon Jay made an illegal slide into second base, but was denied. (See below.) When the Nats came up to bat, Michael A. Taylor drew a leadoff walk and soon the bases were loaded for Bryce Harper. What a moment of suspense that was! Bryce connected on a ball toward the right-center gap, but he didn't get all of it, and he was very disappointed to settle for an RBI sacrifice fly. Ryan Zimmerman then struck out on a bad pitch, as he seems to do too often, unfortunately. That left the score 9-7.

Relief pitcher Ryan Madson (who had come in to finish the seventh inning) had a nice 1-2-3 eighth inning for the Nats. In the bottom of the inning, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon drew walks, and Adam Lind came in to pinch hit for Matt Wieters. Once again, fans in Nationals Park stirred with excitement. Lind has proven an invaluable bench player and all-around utility man for the Nats this year, with several clutch homers and RBIs. This time, however, he grounded into a double play, dousing the flame of fan passion. But then Michael A. Taylor came up and smashed an RBI single into center field, and hopes rose once again. Michael thus became the very first player in MLB history to get four (or more) RBI's in two consecutive postseason games. He is simply amazing! That brought the Nats back to within one run of the Cubs, and Jose Lobaton singled as well. But what could have become a game-changing rally ended when Lobaton was picked off first base by the catcher in yet another controversial play discussed below.

Michael A. Taylor

The hero of Game 4, and would-be hero of Game 5, Michael A. Taylor, at Nationals Park on September 29.

In the top of the ninth inning, the Nats' great new closing pitcher, Sean Doolittle, did his job, getting three quick outs. In the bottom of the ninth, Trea Turner swung at a bad pitch on a 3-1 count and then flew out, wasting a walk opportunity. (That was indeed just awful, as MLB-TV's "High Heat" host Christopher Russo practically screamed his derision this afternoon.) Next came Jayson Werth, who already had a run, two hits, and two walks that day. But in his probable final at-bat as a Washington National, he swung at a high fastball for strike three. That left it up to Bryce Harper, who likewise struck out; see my Facebook comment below. And that was that. Cubs 9, Nationals 8. frown

Most of the Nationals players rose to the occasion at one point or another, and there was some genuinely good baseball mixed in with all the sloppy play. Until the late innings, most of the pitchers did poorly. I was disappointed that Ryan Zimmerman went 0 for 4 plus one walk, striking out three times and leaving seven (7) batters on base. Ouch! The Nats out-hit the Cubs 14 to 9, but just couldn't get enough hits in clutch situations. The game was ridiculously slow, taking 4:37 to complete just nine innings. (The stroke of midnight came somewhere around the seventh inning, so superstitious fans could blame the Nats' misfortunes on Friday the 13th.) Attendance was 43,849, almost the same as in NLDS Games 1 and 2.

Dubious umpire calls

Only sore losers blame defeat on unfair officiating, so I hope I'm not doing that. But in three critical situations, questionable rulings had a huge effect on the course of the game, adverse from the Nationals' point of view.

In the wild and crazy fifth inning, when catcher Matt Wieters was charged with a passed ball on strike three, he ran to the backstop and unwisely threw the ball to try to get Javier Baez out at first. I didn't realized it at the time, but Baez's bat struck Wieters' mask, possibly leaving him a bit dazed. Wieters promptly told the umpire that happened, but was told that it didn't matter. frown But according to the Official Baseball Rules:

Rule 6.03 (comment): If a batter strikes at a ball and misses and swings so hard he carries the bat all the way around and, in the umpire's judgment, unintentionally hits the catcher or the ball in back of him on the backswing, it shall be called a strike only (not interference). The ball will be dead, however, and no runner shall advance on the play.

There is no question that the bat struck the catcher, and that it should have been a dead ball. But in such a case (with a passed ball), the batter could not attempt to reach first base, so it would have been the third out, with the score remaining 5-4. Has this situation never occurred before at all? MLB will have to clarify the rules for next year.

Two innings later (the seventh), Jon Jay made an apparent illegal slide into second base, raising his leg and clearly going after Daniel Murphy, to the left of the bag. Such a violation of the "Chase Utley rule" would have have made the batter (Kris Bryant) out at first on a would-be double play, and the run scored by Kyle Schwarber would not have counted. But for some reason, the umps didn't see it that way, and that run ended up deciding the game. frown

Finally, in the bottom of the eighth inning, the catcher, Willson Contreras tried to pick off Jose Lobaton at first base, and the umpire ruled he was safe. But Joe Maddon challenged the call, and although the video replay did show that Lobaton's foot briefly came off the bag when he slid back in, there was no clear proof that Anthony Rizzo had his glove on him at that precise moment. When the evidence is inconclusive, the original call is supposed to stand, so I was shocked when the review overturned the call. If you want to blame Lobaton for taking too big of a lead for no reason (as Christopher Russo did), go ahead, but changing an umpire's call in such a critical situation with such inconclusive video evidence is very bad. frown

Werth's sad farewell

This was almost certainly Jayson Werth's last game as a National (his seven-year contract has expired), and it was painful to watch the postgame interview with him in such a sad and bewildered state. He couldn't believe what had happened, and neither could we the fans. To his immense credit, he spoke openly and honestly about what that game and that series meant to him, and it was obvious how much he craved winning that series and helping take the Nats all the way to the World Series. Even though his batting and fielding performance was gradually declining over the past couple years, no one could ever doubt his passionate commitment to the team. As he (most likely) bids farewell to Washington in the next few months, let's not forget what he meant for helping turn this franchise from an also-ran motley crew to a championship-caliber "band of brothers." heart

Jayson Werth

Jayson Werth at second base after hitting a single in the sixth inning, at Nationals Park on September 29.

My Facebook reflections

Here are some of my initial observations on Facebook, during and immediately after the game:

(On the "Washington D.C. Baseball - Yesterday & Today" page at the top of the fifth inning:) Shouldn't they be holding Scherzer in reserve until the later innings? He'll only last two or three, right? It seems almost desperate.
(In response to a downcast Nats fan on that same page after the sixth inning:) We're being tested just like the players are, Damien. Down two runs with three innings to go is not that bad.
(On my own timeline, after the final out:) "Don't swing, Bryce," I was thinking. "Take the walk and let Zim have another chance." But swing he did, at an awful inside pitch no less, and that's how the 2017 season ends. There's plenty of blame to go around, but I'm not going to mope around. The Nats are still a great team, overall, and have much to be proud of. We can fix the problems and do better next year!

Comparing four NLDS's

Whereas each of the four times the Nats have made it to the NLDS have been marked by a sudden, crushing, hideous twist of fate (to a greater or lesser extent), each one is unique in terms of the sequence of wins and losses. All four times the Nationals enjoyed home field advantage, but in the 2012 series, the format was changed from 2-2-1 to 2-3 because of the addition of a second wild card team that year. The Nats have faced four different opponents, and went all the way to Game 5 in all years except 2014. They lost the first game in three of the four years, and only had a series lead after Game 1 of 2012 and Game 3 of 2016.

Year Opponent Game 1 Game 2 Game 3 Game 4 Game 5
2012 Cardinals W
2014 Giants L
2016 Dodgers L
2017 Cubs L

@ = away game

ALCS Game 1: Astros beat Yanks

In Houston tonight, the Astros edged the Yankees 2-1 in a tense pitchers' duel between Dallas Keuchel and Masahiro Tanaka. (I keep wondering, shouldn't a guy named "Dallas" be playing for the Rangers?) The Astros put together three hits to scrounge out two runs in the fourth inning, sparked as usual by Jose Altuve, while the Yankees failed to score until the ninth inning. The Yankees' stunning series comeback victory against the Indians in the ALDS Game 5 was at least as disheartening to Cleveland fans as the NLDS Game 5 defeat was to fans in Washington.

Tomorrow the Cubs will begin playing the NLCS against the Dodgers in Los Angeles, and I think most readers of this blog know where the Clem family sympathies lie. But I'm also intrigued by the possibility of a rematch of one of the classic rivalries in World Series history: the L.A. Dodgers won in 1963 and 1981, while the Yankees won in 1977 and 1978.

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 14 Oct 2017, 2: 33 AM

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