In their 13th season in Washington, in the early minutes of Friday the 13th, in the 48th year of the combined Expos-Nationals World Series drought, and in the Year of Our Lord Bryce Harper Could Really Use Some Convincing Not to Negotiate With the Yankees in 2018, the Nationals failed, again, to win a baseball game that they needed to win. Or, more specifically, they found an astounding number of ways to lose one.
The Cubs beat the Nationals, 9–8, and they will advance to face the Dodgers in the NLCS with their eyes on a second consecutive World Series. They did this with two doubles and four RBIs from Addison Russell and a revolving door of just-competent-enough relievers, and with so much respect afforded Anthony Rizzo that he managed to drive in a run without getting on base. The Nats were 4–3 against the Cubs in the regular season, including one game in which Washington shortstop Trea Turner managed to make then-Cubs catcher Miguel Montero so mad that he lost his job. But the real story this night is of the mesmerizingly hideous, hours-long collapse of a team that had every reason to pull off the franchise’s first postseason series victory — ace pitching, reliable bats, strong fielding, a first-in-the–National League OPS, the zippiest base runner this side of just about anywhere — but will once again spend the bulk of their October at home, with yet another winter to contemplate how it all went so wrong. On Thursday night, the Nationals fell into a pit and then spent the rest of the evening muddily clambering halfway out of it and then sliding right back on in. It was like the Shadow scene in Homeward Bound, only if instead of running triumphantly into the arms of loving onlookers at the end, the pup, well … you know.
I’m being dramatic. I am. But did you see what I saw on Thursday night in Washington? Perhaps you did, but the list of catastrophes was so very long that it bears recounting. Maybe you saw Gio González take the mound to kick things off, a choice of starters that manager Dusty Baker explained earlier in the day as something that went so desperately wrong when González started Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS, five years ago to the day, that perhaps the pitcher would be inspired to seek “redemption.” Maybe you saw González’s second pitch of the night go flying off the bat of Chicago’s Jon Jay — also the leadoff hitter, by the by, in 2012’s Game 5, when the center fielder was in St. Louis. Maybe you saw his resulting slide into second base, and Baker fritter away one of his challenges on a missed tag. Maybe you saw a wild pitch take Jay to third, and watched him score on a Rizzo groundout.
But it was fine, right? For a moment there, it was. I saw people at Nationals Park smiling, I swear; they can vouch for it if they haven’t yet followed my conga line into the river. Gio settled down for a 1–2–3 second inning; Daniel Murphy went deep; Michael A. Taylor, savior of life, liberty, and Stephen Strasburg’s plague-ridden dignity, hit another homer to give the Nationals a 4–1 lead. A 4–1 lead! There they were at last, the 97-win Nats, the Nats with four players with an OPS+ of at least 135, the put-your-chips-on-these-guys Nationals. What could go wrong?
A lot, it turns out. So much. So, so, so much. There were four consecutive Cubs who reached base in the fifth inning thanks to [clears throat] an intentional walk, a passed-ball strikeout, catcher’s interference, and a hit-by-pitch — a sequence that Baseball-Reference subsequently declared has never happened even once in the 2.73 million half-innings of baseball it has on record. There was a probably blown call involving an obscure rule about twirling at home plate. There was the emergence of certain savior Max Scherzer, who promptly gave up three hits and four runs. There was José Lobaton, controversially picked off at first thanks to a case-against-the-advent-of-replay replay challenge, ending the eighth inning and what turned out to be the Nationals’ last real chance of scoring again the Cubs.
The last out of the night fell to Harper, who could not have been a more perfect hero had he managed to tie the Cubs and drag, perhaps, this spawn-of-Satan game into extra innings. He struck out.
In the Nationals clubhouse after the game, few spoke, and those who did tended to whisper. This loss will mark outfielder Jayson Werth’s last game with the team he joined in 2011 on a seven-year, $126 million that brought the still-young franchise its first star. After the game, he stood by his locker, repeating, “I can’t believe we lost that game.” When Scherzer saw a herd of cameras and microphones turn toward him, he seemed visibly to shrink. “This game’s cruel sometimes,” he said, mostly to the clubhouse floor. “It’s the way things can happen.” Just down the concourse in the visitors’ clubhouse, Chicago players lit cigars and reveled in turning the tarped-up room into a grandiose hotbox. New caps were passed out — TAKE17 — and used to hold back Bud Lite–slicked hair. They tried to count the things that happened, the incredible luck that had come to them. There was so much of it.
And in Washington we have new heartbreak, and oh, what a pantheon of heartbreak it joins. There was the Nationals’ loss in Game 5 of the 2016 NLDS (to the Dodgers). There was the loss in the 2014 NLDS (in four games to the Giants, but given that one went 18 innings, it might as well have been a full series loss). There was the loss in Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS. There was 2015, when Bryce Harper was named league MVP and the Nats, who entered the season as the betting woman’s favorites to win the World Series, managed to miss the playoffs entirely. In their time in Washington, the Nationals have not once managed to win a postseason series.
They join their fellow teams in the District in what is beginning to feel an awful lot like a citywide curse. There are the Capitals, who have made the playoffs in eight of their last nine seasons and bombed out of each and every one of them. There are the Wizards, who have been in the playoffs seven times since 2004; they, too, have failed to nab a championship. There are the Redskins, who last won the Super Bowl in 1992, though have been too mediocre and readily contemptible to earn quite as much sympathy as their peers.
On Thursday, the pitching on both sides of Game 5 was frequently disastrous. But for all of that, it bears repeating that these Nationals threw away most of the help they got from the mound throughout the series. In games 1 and 3, Scherzer and Strasburg combined for 12 no-hit innings; the Nats lost both those games. Through the first three games of the series, the team collectively hit just .121. On Thursday, the bats woke up and the pitching fell apart and the fielding went to the upside down. Nothing that happened was remotely enough to save the Nationals from themselves.