The Nationals' last good chance to score was cut short, leading to another early exit from the postseason.
Just when it looked like the Washington Nationals were going to win their first playoff series since relocating to the nation's capital in 2004, their luck took a turn for the worst in one of the most bizarre games of the postseason so far.
After splitting the first four games of their National League Division Series, the Nationals hosted the Chicago Cubs in a crucial elimination game on Thursday night. Starter Gio Gonzalez didn't have his best stuff, surrendering a double to Jon Jay on the second pitch of the game, but the Nationals offense bailed him out with a pair of home runs in the early going, building a 4-3 lead through four innings.
The game featured plenty of twists and turns from there, and despite lackluster pitching, the Nationals stayed within striking distance. By the time they came to bat in the bottom of the eighth inning, the score was 9-7, but a pair of leadoff walks and a timely single from outfielder Michael Taylor got them to eight runs, just one off the lead.
That's when catcher Jose Lobaton came to the plate, kicking off one of the most heartbreaking sequences in the history of the franchise. After Lobaton singled to center field, Cubs closer Wade Davis tried to pick him off at first, sending Lobaton lunging back to the bag. While Lobaton was initially called safe, a closer look revealed that his body came off the base while Cubs' first baseman Anthony Rizzo was applying the tag. Cubs manager Joe Maddon's successful challenge sent Lobaton back to the dugout, ending the Nationals' two-out rally.
Take a look at the controversial play:
While the overturned call didn't end the game, it did halt what wound up being the Nationals' last good chance to score. Davis was dialed in in the bottom of the ninth, recording three quick outs to seal a seven-out save and send the Cubs to the National League Championship Series.
The fact that such a crucial moment was determined by an overturned call didn't sit well with some of the Nationals. More than three years after MLB expanded instant replay into its current form, players still don't have complete confidence in the system.
"It didn't look great," Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth said, according to Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post. “At the same time, since this replay thing has been in, half the time, you don't know what they're going to do. I feel they're flipping coins up there."
The overturned call wasn't the only moment that sank Washington's chances of winning the game. In a rare relief appearance, ace pitcher Max Scherzer allowed four runs in an abysmal fifth inning. Despite posting a 0.902 WHIP during the regular season, he allowed four Cubs batters to reach base on an intentional walk, a passed-ball strikeout, catcher's interference, and a hit-by-pitch in consecutive at bats. It was the first time that sequence has occurred in the history of baseball, according to Baseball Reference.
The Nationals have won four division titles in the last six years, but they have never won a playoff series. With games as bizarre as Thursday's, it's hard to blame them for getting down on themselves.
"Just a gut punch again. Here we are in Game 5, play our hearts out, everybody lays it on the line, everybody's fighting doing everything they can. It was a nail-biter of a game again," said Scherzer, according to Thomas Boswell of the Post. "It just sucks … This game's cruel sometimes … What a series."
The Nationals now face another offseason of hard questions and increasing pressure for postseason success. While they should be equipped to make another run next season, stars like Gonzalez, Bryce Harper, and Daniel Murphy are set to hit free agency after 2018.