WASHINGTON — All the beer and champagne flying across the visiting clubhouse at Nationals Park, the layers of cigar smoke floating around the room and all the mind-blowing aspects to this elimination game left Cubs players feeling like they just blacked out, not sure what really happened here in Washington as Thursday night turned into Friday morning.
Have you ever experienced anything like this before?
“Yeah, Game 7 of the World Series,” said Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs first baseman laughing and being serious at the same time.
This National League Division Series absolutely lived up to the hype. A Cubs team that spent most of the regular season looking a little bored or distracted — jonesing for this adrenaline rush — found a match in the Nationals. The unpredictability of a 9-8 game that lasted 4 hours and 37 minutes could be boiled down to the fifth inning and a total Max Scherzer breakdown.
“It was bizarro world, there’s no question about it,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “But it happens. It happens this time of the year.”
There’s an eerie banner facing out from the right-center-field deck at Nationals Park, a close-up shot of Scherzer’s blue and brown eyes, with a backward K and a K in each one, an artistic rendering of a two-time Cy Young Award winner with more than 2,100 career strikeouts.
Scherzer’s outsized presence loomed over this entire NLDS, from the hamstring “tweak” that would allow him to start only once in a best-of-five format, to the no-hitter he took into the seventh inning on a bad right leg in a Game 3 loss at Wrigley Field, to turning into Washington’s bullpen weapon, ready to end the reign of the defending World Series champs.
Except these Cubs are built for moments like this, the ones that will now haunt Scherzer, manager Dusty Baker and the rest of the Nationals until they outrun their reputation for underachieving in October — four first-round knockouts since 2012 — and ride in a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.
“We’ve been through it,” said Ben Zobrist, last year’s World Series MVP. “In those situations, we tend to start believing we’re going to get the job done, even if it doesn’t look like we are.”
Baker was in toothpick-chewing mode as the Nationals clung to a 4-3 lead in the fifth inning. Scherzer fired six pitches at Kris Bryant and Rizzo and quickly notched the first two outs. But an NLDS that already brought you Rizzo screaming “RESPECT ME!” and Baker’s Chicago mold conspiracy theory and The Stephen Strasburg Under The Weather Game was going to get weird.
Bat-flipping catcher Willson Contreras and the pinch-hitting Zobrist knocked back-to-back singles to set up Addison Russell, who bounced a two-run, go-ahead double down the left-field line, stunning and silencing the sellout crowd of 43,849.
“You got to believe that as a club we’re just going to find a way to do it,” Zobrist said. “We’ve done it so many times in the past now that you just start believing it’s going to happen again.
“That’s what great teams do. And we were able to pull out a crazy one.”
This is where the Nationals collapsed. Scherzer intentionally walked Jason Heyward, perhaps the least dangerous hitter in this lineup. Javier Baez swung and missed a strike three that went through the legs of catcher Matt Wieters, who chased after the ball and carelessly threw it into right field, allowing another run to score. Pinch-hitter Tommy La Stella then went to first base on a Wieters catcher interference. Scherzer drilled Jon Jay’s left knee with a pitch to make it 7-4.
Score it all as ... WTF?
“I would say that this is the most fun I’ve had playing in a baseball game,” Russell said. “It ranks right up there with winning the World Series, (coming back from) being down 3-1 in the World Series.
“Just to see the fight that my team had, (how) everyone's up there top-stepping every pitch. Just to see the energy, the flow within the dugout was ... I get chills just talking about it. It was awesome.”
The Cubs didn’t exactly go into cruise control from there, but they have an internal compass for when things go absolutely bonkers, like it did early and often and late in Game 5, remembering how they got here in the first place.
While the Nationals wonder, “Wait until next year?,” the Cubs don’t think like that anymore, focusing only on the next pitch and trying to treat each one like a separate event. That’s why they will be flying cross-country overnight to the West Coast on their third straight trip into the NL Championship Series and Saturday’s Game 1 at Dodger Stadium.
“It’s not easy to control your emotions,” Rizzo said. “We’re really good at going one pitch at a time, especially in these situations. We got to keep it going now. We’re going have some fun on the plane ride. We’re going to L.A. and have some fun.”