NLDS Game 5: Cubs return to NLCS after wild victory over Nationals

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

WASHINGTON – There was a crazy, amazing, maddening, hilarious, upside-down, brilliant, stupid, infuriating, exhilarating, entertaining, chaotic game played here Thursday night. As it stretched past midnight and into Friday the 13th, as the Chicago Cubs survived another day and the Washington Nationals suffered another crushing playoff loss, the only proper reaction was that baseball had just birthed one of the most beautifully ugly nine-inning contests in its history.

The final score was Cubs 9, Nationals 8. The Cubs advance to the National League Championship Series. The Nationals, for the third time in six years, lost a do-or-die Game 5 in excruciating fashion at home and still have never won a playoff series in the near half-century history of the franchise. Those are the simple details. They do not begin to describe what unfolded over the 4 hours, 37 minutes of baseball played.

There was one of the oddest half innings of the 2.7 million-plus played since baseball started recording its history. And a baserunning blunder aided by a controversial replay call. And, in the end, a relief pitcher going farther than he ever has to send the Cubs to their third consecutive NLCS.

Before it devolved into bedlam, this had the looks of another low-scoring game in a series personified by inept offenses. It was a chilly night at Nationals Park, where 48,349 packed the stands hoping to see the Nationals do what neither their predecessors in Washington nor those in Montreal had done. In a way, they did.

The Nationals took an early 4-1 lead on a pair of second-inning home runs from Daniel Murphy and Michael Taylor. The Cubs answered back with a pair of runs in the top of the third, putting Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez on the ropes much as Washington had with Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks. The two would combine for seven innings pitched and yield to 12 total relief pitchers.

The Chicago Cubs celebrate after beating the Washington Nationals 9-8 to advance to the NLCS. (AP)

Neither was around for the fifth, when the lunacy kicked into full gear. On came Max Scherzer, the likely NL Cy Young winner, for a rare relief appearance. His fastball up to 99 mph, he notched the first two outs easily. Then came one of the oddest sequences in baseball history.

After giving up an infield single, a bloop single and a go-ahead double by Addison Russell, Scherzer intentionally walked Jason Heyward and followed by striking out Javier Baez. On his backswing, Baez hit catcher Matt Wieters in the head as the ball scooted through Wieters’ legs. The ball should’ve been dead and Baez out, but umpire Jerry Layne didn’t see the contact, and Baez went to first base on a passed ball. Pinch hitter Tommy LaStella took first when his swing hit Wieters’ glove, and then Scherzer hit Jon Jay with a pitch.

Never before had an intentional walk, passed-ball strikeout, catcher’s interference and hit by pitch happened in the same inning. Only five times, according to Baseball Reference, has it happened in the same game. The Cubs surged ahead 7-4.

The parade of relievers was well on its way at that point, and the Cubs went to closer Wade Davis with two outs in the seventh inning. Never had Davis recorded a seven-out save.

On he chugged, giving up a run in the eighth that brought the Nationals to within 9-8. With runners on first and second with two outs and Trea Turner at the plate, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras back-picked Nationals backup catcher Jose Lobaton at first base. Umpire Will Little ruled him safe. The Cubs challenged. Lobaton’s foot slipped off the base for a millisecond as first baseman Anthony Rizzo applied the tag. He was out. The inning and threat ended.

In the ninth, Davis blew through the Nationals. Turner flew out. Jayson Werth swung through a 95-mph fastball. And Bryce Harper, the former MVP, the face of the Nationals, whiffed on a 90-mph cutter.

As he skulked off the field, as Nationals fans poured through the exits, as the franchise faced another disappointment, the Cubs rejoiced, ready to defend their title, to take on the 104-win Dodgers. No longer were they the saddest-sack franchise. That title belongs to the team they beat.

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