WASHINGTON — Nine innings of baseball.
That’s all it is, or was. You can strip it all away — the hope and the hype, the anxiety, shared across every sport in the city. Nine innings separate you from never having to hear anything about your past failures ever again. Or they become the latest chapter in a seemingly more impossible tale.
In the end, Game 5 was like the Foo Fighters show christening the new glistening venue The Anthem down the street. The Nats played all their greatest hits — the Gio Gonzalez jitters, the starter-out-of-the-bullpen implosion, the squandered early lead, the inevitable celebration by the other team on their home field. But they mixed in some new material, too.
Like in 2012, the top of the order had the last chance to change the narrative. As they did in 2016, the Nats needed just a single run to at least force extra innings. As always, whatever that one thing was they really needed to get over the top, they didn’t get.
We probably should have known it was a bad omen when, after five years of not solving their postseason Metro issues, a Chicago-based company picked up the bill at the last second to keep the system open.
You could have hoped for something else, but the echoes coming into Thursday night were impossible to ignore.
That Gio Gonzalez was the most obvious choice to start Game 5 didn’t make the fact that he was doing so — exactly five years to the day after THAT Game 5 — any less ominous. That Michael Morse threw out the first pitch five years to the day after his final at-bat with the team, the instantly-famous-then-infamous singalong single, didn’t help. That the Nationals were facing the defending champs once more, this time the Cubs instead of the Cardinals, seemed predestined.
Even the opposing leadoff hitter — Jon Jay — was the same man who dug into the box to launch the festivities five years earlier. When he hit a ringing double on the game’s second pitch, sliding in ahead of Bryce Harper’s cannon throw, any pregame calm was already shattered. But when Gonzalez stranded the bases loaded, allowing just a single run, it felt like maybe the Nats had swiveled and held on, refusing to go over the ledge.
And maybe they did. But the gusts keep coming in the postseason, even — especially — when you least expect them.
There are the good gusts — the one where Michael A. Taylor followed his incredible, game-sealing grand slam from Wednesday night at Wrigley Field with an encore three-run shot in his very next at-bat, pushing the Nationals in front 4-1 in the second inning.
And then, well, there’s everything that happened for the next few innings.
When Max Scherzer entered the game from the bullpen — stomping and snorting, the Nationals ahead 4-3 in the fifth — even the most strident drunk in Wrigleyville wouldn’t have dared declare the inning would end with the Cubs up three runs. But then came a bizarre, almost unspeakable, Salvador Dali-like sequence of dripping clocks folding in on themselves as the range of possible baseball outcomes was stretched to its limits.
— SABR (@sabr) October 13, 2017
That Dali painting? It’s called “The Persistence of Memory,” and if that isn’t the most fitting way to describe the constant state of tortured existence that stretches from first pitch to final out of every Nats Game 5, I don’t know what is.
Of course, there are differences between them. The weather Thursday night wasn’t what it was five years ago. On that evening, what started as a warm fall day descended into the chill of winter as quickly as the Nationals’ six-run lead evaporated. On Thursday, the day was gray and drizzly from the start and stayed there as the hours wore thin and the flow of the game slowed to an IV drip, drip, dripping away, almost imperceptibly.
Neither was the shock so quick and heavy that there was no time for the Nationals to recover. Rather than the ninth, as it was in 2012, or the seventh (as it was last year), this time the fifth inning proved to be the undoing. But the fact that it came earlier meant there was more room for hope, just as there was last year, when the Nats clawed back within a run, only to come up just short.
This time, they clawed again and again, mounting rally after rally that yielded results — two runs in the sixth, one each in the seventh and eighth, all with two outs — but fell short of their full potential. They stranded six over those three frames, and that doesn’t even include Jose Lobaton.
Sure, you’ll probably remember him getting picked off, on replay, as the swing point of the game. You might think that this wasn’t the intent of replay, to adjudicate the minute plays that have long been accepted as “close enough” in the history of the game. You might think Lobaton had no business ever putting himself in any position to be picked off, the trail runner caught in no man’s land tempting a catcher well known for back-picking runners. The perspective isn’t really important — something was going to happen to keep the score line from finishing with the Nats on top. It might as well have been that.
The team seemingly tried to reverse the jinx by inviting Morse, and reviving the singing of a-ha’s “Take On Me” after the seventh inning stretch. Fans were cutting the heads off rubber chickens (again). A priest blessed the bats before Game 5. It was all simultaneously far too much and also never enough.
Meanwhile, throughout the series, the team Twitter account was throwing shade after each win — heck, even after rallies. For a team that has won nothing, never advanced in the postseason, it all just felt a little irksome. For those of us who have learned to believe in baseball gods, sworn them off, then returned to them again, groveling for our blasphemy, it seemed downright stupid.
The pain of all this has to be doubly strong for Dusty Baker. He’s now lost 10 straight games with a chance to advance to the next round of the playoffs, extending his own Major League record. Those losses have spanned over, you guessed it, five postseason series.
And the sad part was, none of it really seemed particularly like it was Dusty’s fault.
Yes, I thought he should have started Scherzer for an inning or two instead of bringing him out of the bullpen, but nobody could have foreseen the disaster that befell him in the fifth. The double switch of Lobaton instead of pinch-hitting for Matt Wieters could be questioned, but the latter hit the ball hard. In total, Baker outmanaged his much-heralded counterpart, Joe Maddon, who couldn’t make any move work until he finally handed the game to Wade Davis and just said, “Here, finish this, whatever it takes.”
In the end, the missed call on Wieters and the Lobaton pickoff contributed to the list of reasons the Nats lost, but they weren’t why the Nats lost. They didn’t lose because Jayson Werth hit the wrong button on the controller and went into a slide as the ball zipped wide of his mitt, to the wall, allowing the Cubs’ eighth run to score. They didn’t lose because of Wieters’ passed ball, or his ensuing E2, or because Scherzer hit Jay with the bases loaded.
They lost because they’re the Nats, and because these things happen to the Nats in the precise combination required each year to ensure they lose in the most painful fashion possible. There were nine innings Thursday night to disprove this theory. There will be nine more, someday. Until then, they’ll be the Nats, Game 5 will be Game 5, and the two will remain historically, famously incompatible.