WASHINGTON (AP) — Max Scherzer emerged from the bullpen to protect a lead, and Bryce Harper batted with the bases loaded. Again and again, the Nationals had the defending World Series champions on the ropes.
For Washington's tortured fans, it was all just another setup for a crushing playoff defeat.
Scherzer allowed four runs in an exasperating inning of relief, and the Nationals' repeated attempts to rally came up maddeningly short in a 9-8 loss early Friday morning to the Chicago Cubs in Game 5 of their NL Division Series.
The Nationals were eliminated in the NLDS for the fourth time in six years, including a trio of Game 5 losses at home. Washington hasn't won a playoff series since moving to the city in 2005.
This chapter of postseason disappointment may be the wildest. There was Jayson Werth whiffing on a line drive to left field, pinch-hitter Adam Lind grounding into a comeback-killing double play and backup catcher Jose Lobaton getting picked off first base to erase another golden chance.
Michael A. Taylor got Washington going with a three-run homer and an RBI single, adding to his remarkable series that included a grand slam in Game 4. But the Nationals couldn't overcome a crippling sequence during Chicago's four-run fifth.
Scherzer entered to a roar from the sellout crowd of 43,989, manager Dusty Baker letting him loose with a 4-3 lead for his first relief appearance since the 2013 playoffs, when he was with the Detroit Tigers.
Nationals Park rocked as Scherzer got two quick outs, and then it all fell apart. Scherzer allowed three straight hits, the last a two-run double by Addison Russell, and Chicago went ahead 5-4.
After an intentional walk to Jason Heyward, Scherzer struck out Javier Baez, but catcher Matt Wieters dropped the pitch. The ball rolled away, and then Wieters threw it into left field, allowing Russell to score.
Wieters appeared to argue that Baez's bat hit him in the side of the mask on strike three. Major League Baseball rules state that if, in the umpire's judgment, a catcher is struck on a backswing before he secures the ball, it should be called a strike and the play ruled dead. It's unclear how the rule applies given that the ball had already gotten past Wieters.
Wieters was called for catcher's interference on the next at-bat, and then Scherzer plunked Jon Jay to force home a run.
Chicago took a 7-4 lead and narrowly staved off Washington's rallies the rest of the way, including when Harper batted with one out and the bases loaded in the seventh. The 2015 NL MVP drove a sacrifice fly to center for the Nationals' only run in the inning.
This elimination-game loss was another stunner a year after a topsy-turvy Game 5 against the Los Angeles Dodgers that included third base coach Bob Henley sending Werth into a sure out at home and Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw picking up the save. Scherzer called that "the craziest game" he had ever been a part of.
Craziest to that point. Even after Scherzer's 28-pitch maelstrom, the Cubs scored again when Werth slid and missed a line drive in left and got their ninth run in the seventh on an RBI groundout.
The Nationals chipped away and got it to 9-8 in the eighth. Cubs closer Wade Davis stumbled while chasing a seven-out save, but Lind grounded into a double play in the eighth, and then Lobaton was backpicked by Contreras at first base to end a two-on threat. Originally called safe, Lobaton was ruled out after a Cubs challenge when his right foot slid off the base.
Harper got one last chance to swing for a win, but struck out swinging for the final out.
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