November 24, 2017

Once again, the Nationals are ousted in the NLDS. Who’s to blame this time?

Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer buries his face in his hat during the 2017 NLDS against the Cubs. Credit: ESPN.com

Here we are again.

Five years ago today, the Nationals experienced this feeling for the first time. Two years later, the team fell to the Giants in four games. Just last year, the Nationals fell to the Dodgers in Game 5.

On Thursday night, it happened again when they lost a 9-8 heartbreaker in a winner-take-all Game 5 against the Cubs.

It’s a day that Nationals fans have seen over and over again. A regular season filled with thrills and promise lead up to a postseason with high expectations.

Yet again, they’ve failed to live up to them.

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The Nationals entered the playoffs after a 97-win season. It was the deepest, most talented team the Nationals have had entering the playoffs. Between a strong pitching staff and a potent offense, the Nationals appeared to be primed to finally break through.

Just one week into the postseason, and they’ve been eliminated in the first round, again. At this juncture, there is one question that desperately needs to be answered: Who’s to blame?

There is no one clear scapegoat for the Nats, but there are some front runners.

You could blame Dusty Baker, who made a series of poor decisions as manager which made a huge impact in the series. This starts with Game 3. Baker made a number of pitching changes that cause criticism. None more important than the move to bring in Oliver Perez to face Anthony Rizzo.

At that point, it was a tie game at Wrigley Field in Chicago, a game that, with Max Scherzer starting, the Nationals had to win. Rizzo had been the hitter on the Cubs to that point, and pitching to him with a runner in scoring position just didn’t make any sense, especially with no one on first base.

Contreras was on deck for the Cubs, a right-handed hitter, and Ryan Madson, a right-handed pitcher, was warming up in the bullpen. Instead of getting the lefty-on-lefty matchup between Perez and Rizzo, Baker could have had a righty-on-righty matchup between Contreras and Madson. A matchup that would have put a better, more reliable pitcher on the mound for the Nationals. Baker stayed away from Madson, the guy whom his front office had traded for to pitch in that exact spot.

The decision backfired, as Rizzo was able to drive in the runner from second, and win the game for the Cubs.

The next day, Baker badly mismanaged Strasburg. Sure, it worked out in the end. But the Nationals embarrassed themselves in the lead up to the stellar performance from Strasburg.

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Baker was not the authority that he had to be in that situation. If Strasburg was feeling healthy enough that he could show up the ballpark for Game 3 —  a situation where in such close quarters, he could have easily infected his teammates — then he should have never said that he wasn’t ready to pitch Game 4.

More importantly, Baker should not have allowed Strasburg the option to decline the start in a game of that magnitude. Baker then tried to cover up for Strasburg in a press conference, but just made the whole matter worse every time he opened his mouth. Baker made the Nationals organization appear awfully dysfunctional. Again, it worked out, but the process was ugly.

Baker also was unwilling to make obvious changes in his lineup. It became very obvious early on in this series that all Jayson Werth was doing was hurting the Nationals both offensively and defensively. It was clear that he needed to be taken out of the lineup in favor of Howie Kendrick. Werth cost the Nationals in a big way in multiple places, and Baker would not budge.

The blame could fall on Werth, who was a liability both in the field and at the plate. He made key defensive mistakes in Game 5 that cost the Nationals multiple runs. He was unable to get a much-needed hit in every opportunity that was presented to him. He did nothing positive for the Nationals in this series, only negative.

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The blame can also be placed on Trea Turner, who was held hitless in the series until Game 4 and counted on as a source of speed on the base paths. His ability to run wild against the Cubs when two the squared off in D.C. over the summer was priceless. He single-handedly cost Miguel Montero is job. However, if you aren’t reaching base, you can’t steal a base.

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The blame could fall on the Nationals catchers, Jose Lobaton and Matt Wieters. Both of the Nationals catchers were brutal in Game 5.

Wieters made a crushing throwing error that cost the Nationals a run, and allowed an inning that should have been over to continue. The Cubs would take advantage by scoring another run later in that frame. Wieters barely did anything with the bat all series, and was unable to drive in runners in scoring position when he had the chance.

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Lobaton didn’t see much playing time in the series, but he made a brutal mistake when he was in. After getting a hit in the eighth inning of Game 5 to keep the line moving, and putting the Wade Davis and the Cubs on the ropes, Lobaton was picked off at first by Contreras.

Lobaton was originally ruled safe, the play was changed upon review. Despite the fact that there was no convincing the Nationals last threat.

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The blame could fall on the bullpen. The Cubs scored 17 runs in the series. Ten of them came against the Nationals bullpen. The bullpen went from worst to first upon trading for Madson, Doolittle and Brandon Kintzler midseason. However, the unit regressed back towards its first half form upon the arrival of the playoffs. The bullpen was brilliant in Game 2 and Game 4. But very poor in Game 1, Game 3 and Game 5, games in which the Cubs won.

Frankly, the blame could fall on luck. Literally everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong. Replay reviews seemed to always go against the Nationals. Defensive mistakes cost the team over and over. The Nationals left the bases loaded without scoring multiple times in the series. The misfortune of this series truly was unbelievable against the Nationals.

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Another season is in the books for the Nationals, and another painful early exit has come to pass. As the Nationals advance toward next year — Bryce Harper’s last year under contract with the Nationals — there is only one goal for this team: Break the curse.

It’s a team that will get Adam Eaton back, and a team that will yet again be World Series contenders. The window is closing quickly as Harper’s free agency is now all too soon. With another wasted year for the Nationals, the pressure is mounting to win next year.

It was fun ride for the Nationals in 2017. But like it has time and time again, a painful end was in store.


HOW IT HAPPENED

GAMES 1-3

The series started with a Game 1 duel between Stephen Strasburg and Kyle Hendricks. Strasburg didn’t allow a hit until the sixth inning; an inning that spelled doom for the Nationals.

Javier Baez led off the inning by reaching first on an error by Anthony Rendon. Kris Bryant would break up the no hitter with a single that scored Baez, and Anthony Rizzo drove in Bryant on the next at bat. The Nationals offense was shut down by Hendricks and the Cubs pitching staff, being shut out in a Game 1 defeat, despite Strasburg’s overall spectacular performance.

The offensive struggles continued in Game 2. Cubs ace Jon Lester took the mound for the Cubs, and with the exception of a Rendon home run in the first inning, the Nationals did nothing against Lester. Rizzo was the star yet again for the Cubs, hitting a two-run home run in the top of the third to give the Cubs a 3-1 lead.

On the brink of heading to Wrigley Field behind 0-2 in the series, the Nationals bats finally woke up. A pinch hit single from Adam Lind kickstarted a rally for the Nats. Bryce Harper crushed a two-run home run deep into the right field seats, tying the game. Rendon would walk, followed by a Daniel Murphy single. The next batter, Ryan Zimmerman, took advantage of the wind blowing out to left to push a three-run home run just over the left field fence, giving the Nationals the lead. Sean Doolittle would come on to close out the win, and tie up the series, 2-2.

The two teams then headed to Wrigley, where the craziness of this series truly began.

GAME 4

Max Scherzer was set to face Jose Quintana in the third game of the series. The Nationals had multiple scoring chances in the early going of this game, but the Cubs defense, namely Jon Jay and Jason Heyward, made tough catches in the outfield to keep the Nationals off the board.

It took an amazingly poor defensive effort from Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber for the Nationals to get on the board. Zimmerman hit a fly out to left, which Schwarber dropped. The Indiana product then kicked the ball when he was trying to field it, allowing Murphy to come around and score. The mistake by Schwarber gave the Nationals a 1-0 lead.

Max Scherzer was dominant, keeping a no-hitter intact until the seventh inning. Upon allowing a double, the Cubs first hit of the game, to Ben Zobrist, Nationals manager Dusty Baker controversially pulled Scherzer from the game in favor of Sammy Solis. Solis allowed the first batter he faced, pinch hitter Albert Almora Jr. to single, driving in Zobrist and tying the game at one.

In the eighth inning, after allowing a runner to reach second, Baker brought in Oliver Perez to face the only Cubs batter that had been productive at all, Rizzo, with first base wide open. Rizzo blooped a hit to center field that fell right in between Jayson Werth, Michael A. Taylor and Trea Turner. It was a ball that could have been caught by all three of them, but non were able to come up with it. The Cubs scored on the play and took a 2-1 lead. The Nationals offense did not show up yet again, and Game 3 went to the Cubs.

Rain on the originally scheduled day of Game 4 looked to be a gift for the Nationals. The game was pushed back to Wednesday, and gave the Nationals a chance to pitch Strasburg on full rest, facing elimination.

It wouldn’t be that simple.

The Nationals reported on Tuesday, the originally scheduled date of the game, that Strasburg was sick, and would be unable to pitch. However, after a series of treatments, Strasburg determined on Wednesday morning that he was ready to go. Strasburg would take the ball in Game 4, and delivered the performance of his life.

Strasburg threw seven innings, allowing just three hits while striking out 12. Strasburg was absolutely dominant, coming up huge despite dealing with the Flu. No pitch for Strasburg was more effective than his changeup, which was unhittable in Game 4.

Even with Strasburg’s spectacular outing, the Nationals headed to the top of the eighth inning leading just 1-0. Murphy would walk and Zimmerman would single off of Lester who had thrown two and a third perfect innings out of the bullpen up to that point (although Zimmerman would later be picked off by Lester).

The struggling Carl Edwards Jr. came in, and walked Rendon and Matt Wieters to load the bases. Edwards threw a ball on the first pitch to Taylor, and Cubs manager Joe Maddon was forced to turn to his closer, Wade Davis.
Davis, however, would not be the answer for the Cubs, as Taylor would get just enough power on a hit to right field in the rain at Wrigley for it to carry just into the basket for a grand slam. Taylor’s clutch home run gave the Nationals a 5-0 lead, a lead the team would hold onto in order to force a Game 5 just 24 hours later, five years to the day after the Nationals played in their first ever Game 5.

Game 5 would feature Hendricks against Gonzalez. To this point, the series had been dominated by pitching, but all was about to change.

GAME 5

The Cubs would take a 1-0 lead over the Nationals in the first inning, as Gonzalez was very shaky in the early going. But Hendricks didn’t start strong for the Cubs either. Daniel Murphy led off the bottom of the second inning by depositing the first pitch of the frame into the right field seats, tying the game. The next two batter reached base in front of Taylor, who crushed an elevated pitch from Hendricks into the Cubs bullpen, putting the Nationals in front 4-1.

The Nationals were in need of a shutdown inning from Gio Gonzalez, but weren’t able to get it. In the top of the third Gonzalez allowed two runs, and the Cubs pulled to within one run.

Nationals ace Max Scherzer entered the game out of the bullpen in the fifth inning, with the 4-3 lead still intact. Despite having just two full days of rest, Scherzer was expected to throw two innings out of the bullpen, and given the caliber of a pitcher that he is, shut down the Cubs offense.

It wouldn’t be so.

Scherzer sat down the first two batters relatively quickly, before all hell broke lose on the field at Nationals Park.

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras reached on an infield single. Ben Zobrist followed with a pinch hit single. The next batter, Addison Russell, scorched a ground ball down the third base line and just past the outstretched glove of Rendon and into the corner. Werth wasn’t quick to the ball, and in order to stop his momentum before throwing it in. Those precious seconds allowed both Contreras and Zobrist to score on the play, and put the Cubs in front 5-4.

The damage wouldn’t end there. Heyward would be intentionally walked in order to get a force out in order. Scherzer struck out the next batter, Baez, which should have been the third out. However, Wieters was unable to catch the pitch, and he made a poor throw to first. Zimmerman was unable to make a play on the ball, and neither was Murphy, who allowed the ball to get behind him into the outfield. On the error, Russell was able to round the bases and score. The Cubs would load the bases that inning before Scherzer hit Jon Jay with a pitch, forcing in another run and making the score 7-4.

In the top of the sixth, the Cubs pushed the lead to 8-4 on another Russell RBI double.

But unlike so many games prior, the Nationals would not go away. They crept back to within two in the bottom of the sixth. The Cubs increased their lead back to three in the top of the seventh before the the Nationals responded with a run of their own in the bottom of the frame, making the score 9-7. The Nationals would score one more in the bottom of the eighth, but despite facing Wade Davis for seven outs, and on night where Davis could not find the strike zone consistently, the Nationals were unable to get the one crucial run they needed to tie the game.

Just before 1 a.m. on Friday the 13th, the Nationals saw their season come to a painful halt as they fell to the Cubs in Game 5, 9-8.

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