On Thursday in the nation's capital, Washington lost 9-8 to Chicago in Game 5 of the Nationals League Division Series. It was the fourth time in four postseason appearances since moving from Montreal in 2005 that the Nats came into the NLDS as the higher seed and went out as first-round losers. As improbable as their previous early exits were, their latest freaky playoff collapse just might take the curse cake.
Despite home-field advantage and an early three-run lead that seemed more like 30 given how low-scoring the series had been, Washington somehow frittered it away. Even stranger, it was reliever Max Scherzer -- that's right, reliever -- who was on the mound amid the majority of the frittering.
Pitching in relief for the first time since the 2013 playoffs, Scherzer emerged from the bullpen to start the top of the fifth inning with his team clinging to a 4-3 lead. The reigning Cy Young winner, who was dominant in his Game 3 start, drew thunderous applause from the sellout crimson-clad crowd at Nats Park and then picked up right where he left off on Monday, retiring heavy hitters Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo in succession to start the frame. That's when the wheels -- and the axles and the handles and pretty much everything else that cartmakers use to make carts -- fell off the cart.
It started with three straight hits, including a two-run double by Addison Russell to put the Cubs up by a run, and then got weird from there. Like, really weird.
After an intentional pass to Jason Heyward, Javier Baez whiffed for what would've been the third out. Only it wasn't the third out because the ball got by catcher Matt Wieters, who threw wildly to first, allowing Baez to reach and Russell to score. Tommy La Stella then reached on catcher's interference and Jon Jay got plunked by Scherzer before Kris, batting for the second time in the inning, popped out to finally end the madness. By the time Scherzer's nightmare inning was over, Washington trailed 7-4.
"It's playoffs," said a supremely solemn Scherzer after the game, his cap pulled low over his brow. "Anything can happen. I'm sure I've been in some crazy stuff before, but nothing like that."
The craziness wasn't just confined to the fifth. In the top of the seventh inning, left fielder Jayson Werth lost Russell's line drive in the lights, resulting in an RBI double. But the craziest play of all happened in the bottom of eighth.
With two on and two out and the Nats behind 9-8, Jose Lobaton got picked off first by Cubs catcher Willson Contreras to kill Washington's last best rally. Originally, Lobaton was ruled safe, but the call was overturned after replay review showed that his foot came off the bag while Rizzo was still holding the tag. After that, the Nats went 1-2-3 in the ninth. And after that, they had a hard time contemplating every little cursed thing that had just happened to them.
"If it could go wrong, it did," said Werth, the 38-year-old vet whose seven-year contract with Washington is set to expire. "Usually you lose a game, you can look back at three or four or five plays that changed the landscape of the game or decided the game. I feel like there was like 50 plays in this game. This was like the craziest game I've ever been a part of. It's really s---ty."
"Just gut punch again," Scherzer said. "Here we are in Game 5, play our hearts out, everybody lays it on the line, everybody's fighting to do everything they can and we lose a nail-biter of a game again. It just sucks because I just know how hard everybody played, how talented everybody is. This game's cruel sometimes, just the way things can happen."
While Scherzer spoke, instead of the sound of popping corks, it was the sound of clapping backs that filled the otherwise silent clubhouse, as teammates circled the room and gave each other bro hugs and hearty pats. There was no "Mask Off," the rap song by Future that typically blares after every Washington win. The temporary beige carpet that had just been installed expressly for the purpose of protecting the swanky permanent stuff underneath from the spray of cold carbonated beverage was conspicuously dry. The rolls of plastic sheeting that had been mounted above lockers, ready to be unfurled to guard precious belongings in cubbies, stayed rolled-up. Over on the far end of the oval-shaped room, Ryan Zimmerman gave closing remarks that, for the fourth time in six years, seemed all too premature.
"Obviously, right now it's easy to say it's a failure," said Zimmerman, the Nationals' first-ever draft pick. "It's a failure for every team but one. I think we don't need to lose sight of what this organization has done over the past five or six years.
"I think there's a lot to be proud of. We all want to win. We all want to win the World Series."
Perhaps nobody wants a ring more than Dusty Baker. Although the 68-year-old skipper won a World Series during his playing days with the Dodgers, he had never won one in 21 seasons as a manager. Make it 22 now. It's practically the only thing he hasn't accomplished in his half-century in the game. It's practically the only reason he's still at it.
"It really hurts, you know, to lose like that," said Baker, whose teams have now lost 10 straight postseason closeout games, an MLB record that if you look at it in the proper light, looks not unlike a curse of its own. Seated in a sterile news conference room, the avuncular skipper who's rarely at a loss for words was unusually brief after his team's loss. He rose from the table and headed for the clubhouse, where he joined in the bro-hugging and back-patting.
Meanwhile, Zimmerman was just about done holding court.
"To be competitive, to do what we do every year, it's a pretty special organization," he said, asked to assess the 2017 Washington Nationals. "I'm not going to say it's a successful season. Every year you win the division, I don't think it's a bad season. I think it just shows how far we've come when you win the division, you win almost 100 games, and you have to ask that question.
"So I guess I'm proud you have to ask me that question. About five or six years ago, I never thought I'd be standing here doing this pretty much every year."
You could say it's a blessing. And a curse.