Put a “Curly W” in the books for the DC Curse… and another “L” for the Nationals.
This may be the most gut wrenching of them all. For a team that’s suffered 3 straight NLDS game 5 losses before tonight, including one in which they led 6-0, that’s telling. Of course, in true tragic and familiar fashion the Nationals took an early lead as the offense finally woke from its slumber to put up a 4 spot in the second. The hero of that second inning was Michael Taylor, who in consecutive at-bats going back to game 4 was responsible for 7 RBIs. While Gio Gonzalez labored through 3 unimpressive innings, the thinking was that this time, our deep bullpen would carry us through. Well….think again.
The relief efforts started innocently enough as Matt Albers came on and pitched a scoreless top of the fourth. Then, it was Max time. Scherzer had pitched brilliantly in game 3, throwing 6 hitless innings before giving up his first hit in the seventh and being pulled. He retired the first two hitters in game 5, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, who happen to be the Cubs best hitters. From there, disaster struck. Three hits, an intentional walk, a passed ball, a dropped third strike, catcher’s interference and a hit by pitch — all with two outs and suddenly the 4-3 lead had turned into a 7-4 deficit in a hurry. A lead washed away, an electric crowd silenced in disbelief.
Somebody must have it out for Dusty Baker. The 68-year-old manager of the Nats has seen enough heartbreak on the baseball field to last two lifetimes. Now (seemingly) 0-10000 in elimination games, everything he does in these types of games always seems to backfire. Even his good moves go against everything we’ve come to count on and expect. Start Jayson Werth in the 2nd spot again? He gets on base 4 times and has the best at-bats on the team. Everything else? That’s the story of the misery of Dusty Baker in the postseason. Starting with Max’s incredibly unlikely outing, everything fell apart for Dusty and the Nats. Brandon Kintzler and Sammy Solis combined to give up 2 more runs when they needed shutdown innings in the worst way. So, even after the Nats score 3 runs in the 6th and 7th, they still trailed 9-7 heading into the bottom of the 8th.
The bottom of the 8th might go down as the opening scene in the Dusty 30 for 30. The inning started beautifully as Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon drew leadoff walks to bring up the pitcher spot (switched into the 7th hole) and everyone’s favorite blonde, Adam Lind. Sticking to the tragedy script, Lind of course grounded into a double play on the first pitch. What followed the double play is beyond words. After Taylor singled in Murphy (8 RBIs in 2 games, never buying a beer in DC ever again) Jose Lobaton singled up the middle. Lobaton, the backup to starting catcher Matt Wieters had been inserted as part of a double switch an inning earlier. This after Dusty had the chance to pinch-hit for Wieters with Lind or Howie Kendrick with the bases loaded, but instead watched as Wieters flew out to end the inning.
Back to the bottom of the 8th inning; Taylor on second, Lobaton as the go-ahead run and Trea Turner up to bat against a laboring Wade Davis. As Turner worked the count in his favor 2-1, Lobaton drifted too far off first trying to get a secondary lead and Wilson Contreras almost picked him off. As the bang-bang play was replayed, Lobaton appeared to slightly lose his footing on the bag and Joe Maddon promptly challenged, and of course won, because he’s not Dusty Baker. Just like that, the inning was over and Davis was spared. 3 outs later in the bottom of the 9th, the Cubs advanced and the Nationals were bitterly sent home for the winter once again.
It’s too soon to ask, where do we go from here? A loss like this is going to be very hard to move past for a long time. It’s understandable if you want to blame Dusty or the bullpen or the lineup, but the blame game has been played before and we’ve still lost in Division Series 4 consecutive times. While you can’t say Dusty was the sole reason the Nats lost the series, his moves over the course of the 5 games will be justifiably questioned throughout the offseason. With his contract up, it will be interesting to see what the Lerners and Mike Rizzo decide to do. For now, we’re left with the same depressed feeling as D.C. sports fans, another year where we’re left saying the familiar phrase, “well there’s always next year”. What a disappointing way to end such a promising season. The Curse lives on!