An unforgettable night, at once ugly and beautiful, ends the Nationals’ season

 In Sports
If you can win baseball fans in the process of suffering a brutally bitter season-ending defeat, perhaps the Washington Nationals did it in their exhilarating, exhausting, 9-8 donnybrook defeat to the World Series champion Chicago Cubs on Thursday night at a jam-packed Nationals Park that never knew what hit it.

Time will tell whether so much pain, administered in a nearly five-hour battle full of so many pleasures, will be considered by those lucky and miserable enough to attend as a thing they wish to experience much more. Or never again.

The Nats lost because their leader, their competitive exemplar, Max Scherzer, pitching in relief on two days of rest, normally considered plenty to be effective, was clubbed for four runs in his only inning and took the loss. He arrived to start the fifth inning, oh, happy days and standing ovations with a 4-3 lead. Mad Max left with the Nats trailing 7-4, a deficit from which they tried, time after grimly time, to escape, with rally after heart-stopping rally. But never did.

The Nats lost because two of those runs off Scherzer were unearned because Matt Wieters, a four-time all-star catcher known for his soft hands and glovework, turned into a one-man circus act at the worst possible time. Wieters, the brainy fellow from Georgia Tech, the calm center of every team on which he has played, suddenly found himself spinning like dirty laundry in the tumble cycle.

First, in Scherzer’s one bizarre frame, Wieters committed a passed ball on a third strike to Javier Baez that should have ended that nightmare of a fifth inning. Just an instant after missing that pitch in the dirt, Wieters chased the ball toward the backstop but threw wildly to first base as a run scored.

As if caught in a vortex of exactly the kind of mistakes the cerebral Wieters never makes, the Nats catcher then committed one of the game’s oddest and rarest sins: catcher interference. With his head perhaps swimming, Wieters allowed his glove to flick the swinging bat of pinch-hitter Tommy La Stella to load the bases. Scherzer, perhaps wondering what parallel universe of horrors had swallowed him, hit the next batter in the foot with a pitch.

There are endless twists in any high-scoring morass of thrilling, brain-twisting detail. But the idea of a season-ending loss coming on a margin that was created by poor pitching from Scherzer and hallucinogenic defense by Wieters staggers even the baseball imagination. And the baseball imagination has been staggered, stretched, folded, spindled and mutilated for generations.

The Nats also lost because, once again in Game 5 of a Division Series, just as in 2012, starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez came up small. The first man he faced doubled and scored. He barely escaped the first inning, leaving the bases loaded. And presented with a 4-1 lead entering the third inning, thanks to a solo homer by Daniel Murphy and a three-run blast by Michael A. Taylor — making it two homers in as many at-bats, for a tidy seven RBI after his grand slam Wednesday in Chicago — Gonzalez handed back two runs immediately. Gio, supposedly the new, improved and more mature Gio, aided the Cubs with two of his four walks in that inning, plus a wild pitch that sent home a run.

The Nats even lost because Jayson Werth, 38 and playing probably his last game as a National, misjudged a line drive that he should have caught so badly that he never even touched it, gifting Addison Russell with an RBI double.

Finally, as the Nats mounted a two-on, two-out rally in the bottom of the eighth against tiring closer Wade Davis, who was being asked to get the final seven outs, the vagaries, or some would say viciousness of the sport jumped up one last time. With Trea Turner, who already had two hits, at the plate, Willson Contreras tried to catch Jose Lobaton, the Nats catcher, off first base. Contreras is famous for the move, and Lobaton beat the play back to the bag — clearly.

But in the new world of baseball challenges and replays, doing things that would have been satisfactory since the 19th century is no longer good enough. Lobaton’s foot came off the base for an instant. The Cubs challenged. And he was ruled “out” after the crowd of 43,849 waited in agony for 96 seconds.

All of this will remain one long, blurred, gruesome memory all winter, and perhaps longer, because the heretofore somnolent Nats offense did its job, battering out 14 hits. But rally after rally died just short.

In Chicago, some may say, “The Nats crumbled, just like we said they would.” Although I actually doubt anybody in Chicago is that cruel or that oblivious to how closely matched these teams were and how fortunate the winner — whichever it had been — would have to be.

Few games are the true sage that this one evolved into over several hours.

Baseball at its best is living theater where the blood on the stage, even if it is merely the blood of broken hearts, and the heroism, even if it is just poise under pressure with millions watching, has the added power of being real with a plot that is undetermined and often impacted by events that bend credibility.

Nationals Park on a chilly, moody night was just such living theater, performed by the Cubs and Nationals before a standing room audience, rowdier than any at Shakespeare’s Globe, full to the top rows with red-clad fans who would have paid a princely ransom just to know the last act — who lived, who died and how — before the first act ever began.

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