Oct. 13-- WASHINGTON-Maxwell M. Scherzer would deliver. He would strangle the enemy, slay the curse, vanquish the evil spirits of Octobers past.
The bullpen gate swung open, and the conqueror ran onto the field at Nationals Park, serenaded by a joyous ovation. If the mighty Scherzer could not pitch the Nationals out of the first round of the playoffs for once in the life of this franchise, who could?
Maybe no one.
The Nationals deployed the presumptive National League Cy Young award winner in relief, and seldom has a move backfired in such an utterly bizarre fashion. On an evening packed with the weird and the dubious, Scherzer pitched an inning so crazy it was unprecedented in major league history.
The Chicago Cubs put up four runs on him, the runs that put them ahead for good, in a 9-8 victory over the Nationals in the fifth and final game of the National League division series.
The Cubs scored more runs in Game 5 than they had in the first four games, combined. They also survived their manager's miscalculations, then sweated out the Nationals getting the go-ahead run to the plate in three of the final four innings.
Bring on the rematch. For the second consecutive year, the Dodgers will play the Cubs in the league championship series, with the winner advancing to the World Series.
This is the third time the Dodgers have faced the same NLCS opponent in consecutive seasons. They lost on both previous occasions-in 1978 and in 2009, both times to the Philadelphia Phillies.
When the series opens Saturday at Dodger Stadium, the Dodgers will start the pitcher commonly tagged as the best on the planet, Clayton Kershaw. The Cubs, well, who knows?
The Cubs used their top four starters to close out the NLDS: Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester on Wednesday, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana on Thursday. It is possible that John Lackey, who did not appear in the NLDS, could get the Game 1 start in the NLCS.
Quintana could too, for he made 12 pitches on Thursday. But Cubs manager Joe Maddon misused Quintana, apparently trying to hold him back for Game 1 and then having to rush him into the game in the middle of the seventh inning, after the Cubs had used three middle relievers and the Nationals had scored on each one.
The Nationals got Bryce Harper to bat with the bases loaded and one out in the seventh, with a sellout crowd dreaming of a grand slam that would have put the home team ahead.
Harper delivered a fly ball off Quintana, deep but not so deep as to clear a fence. The sacrifice fly made the score 9-7, after which closer Wade Davis replaced Quintana and unsteadily carried the Cubs to the finish line with a seven-out save.
Davis struck out Ryan Zimmerman to end the seventh. But he walked the first two batters in the eighth inning, after which pinch-hitter Adam Lind rescued Davis by swinging at the first pitch and grounding into a double play.
Michael A. Taylor singled home one run, cutting the Cubs lead to 9-8. Then Jose Lobaton rescued Davis by getting picked off first base.
The last time Davis got seven outs? Four years ago, against the Nationals, as a starter for the Kansas City Royals.
For another year, at least, the Nationals will have to hear all about 1924. No Washington team has won a postseason series since then. Of greater relevance, the Nationals have been eliminated in the first round four times in the past seven years-three times in a full five-game series, including this year by the Cubs and last year by the Dodgers.
They had their $210 million ace, Scherzer, available for two innings on Thursday. They got one inning, an inning that will be replayed and rued as long as October remains such a fickle month in Washington baseball.
The inning was the fifth. The Nationals had a 4-3 lead. If they could get two clean innings from Scherzer, they could hand the lead to their late-inning relievers.
Scherzer retired the first two batters. Then came an infield single-on a fastball at 98.2 mph, the hardest Scherzer had thrown a pitch this season. Then came a bloop single. Two flukes, no real worries.
Addison Russell doubled sharply down the third-base line, scoring both runners, and the Cubs had a 5-4 lead.
What happened with the next four batters was a sequence that never had happened in any of the 2.7 million half-innings in major league history, according to Baseball Reference: intentional walk, strikeout/passed ball, hit by pitch, catcher's interference.
The Cubs scored one on the strikeout when catcher Matt Wieters failed to catch strike three and then threw the ball into right field, and they scored another on the hit batter, because the bases were loaded.
The Cubs thus led 7-4, and Scherzer had given up four runs in the inning. Seven batters had reached base against him.
In Game 3, five batters reached base against him-in 61/3 innings.
The Nationals gave away another run-left fielder Jayson Werth, in what probably was his final game in a Washington uniform, misplayed a line drive into a double-and the Cubs led, 8-4.
But the sloppiness was not confined to the Nationals. With Maddon holding back Quintana for the Dodgers in the hope a four-run lead would hold, middle reliever Mike Montgomery gave up two runs in the sixth-one on a walk in which ball four was so poorly thrown that it was a wild pitch.
The evening started with a brisk chill, in the wind and on the mound, at least for the home team. On the second pitch, Jon Jay doubled. The third pitch was comically high and outside-"just a bit outside," as Bob Uecker said in "Major League"-and Jay took third on the wild pitch.
Jay scored on a ground out, after which the Cubs loaded the bases on a single and two walks. Starter Gio Gonzalez got out of the inning in 26 pitches, but not before the Nationals had commanded a reliever to warm up.
In the second inning, the Nationals opted for this season's favored offensive strategy: the home run. Daniel Murphy hit a solo shot to tie the score, and Taylor hit a three-run shot to give the Nationals a 4-1 lead. Taylor, whose last at-bat in Game 4 was a grand slam, became the first player in postseason history to drive in seven runs in consecutive at-bats.
The Cubs closed within 4-3 in the third inning, scoring twice on one hit, two walks, a run-scoring ground out, and a run-scoring wild pitch.
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