Dusty Baker

Dusty Baker takes the fall for Nationals meltdown against Cubs

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USA TODAY

Dusty Baker takes the fall for Nationals meltdown against Cubs

The Washington Nationals must have been sitting at home, watching the National League Championship Series and wondering: How did we lose to this team?

The Cubs poured so much physical effort, mental focus and emotional energy into those five playoff games against the Nationals that they didn’t have much left in the tank for the bigger, better Los Angeles Dodgers team that dominated the defending World Series champs in every phase and captured the NL pennant on Thursday night at Wrigley Field.

By midday Friday, the Nationals announced that manager Dusty Baker will not return for the 2018 season, while the contracts for the big-league coaching staff have also expired, leaving a franchise with chain-of-command issues in damage-control mode.

This is a bitter disappointment for Baker, who needs a World Series ring as a manager to put the final bullet point on a Hall of Fame resume and still grumbles about how things ended in 2006 after four up-and-down years managing the Cubs.

Baker, 68, a former Marine, All-Star player and all-around Renaissance man with a great feel for dealing with people and managing the clubhouse, apparently couldn’t overcome last week’s elimination-game meltdown at Nationals Park, where the Cubs hung on for a 9-8 victory and forced Washington into its fourth first-round playoff exit since 2012.

Baker’s in-game decision-making was already under the microscope and his teams have now lost 10 straight postseason close-out games, a major-league record, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

The Nationals also needlessly subjected Stephen Strasburg to withering criticism when Baker said the $175 million pitcher was feeling under the weather — maybe because of Chicago mold and hotel air-conditioning units — and being saved for Game 5. Only to flip-flop and watch Strasburg throw seven scoreless innings in a dominant Game 4 performance at Wrigley Field.

That unforced error and yet another manager search is not a good look for the Nationals, who made the announcement through the Lerner family ownership group after general manager Mike Rizzo repeatedly signaled that he expected to reach a new agreement with Baker after winning 192 games combined in two years and back-to-back division titles.

Since the franchise relocated from Montreal and abandoned the Expos logo in 2005, the Nationals have employed seven different managers and will be starting all over again in 2018, when Bryce Harper will be in his last season before becoming a free agent and probably wondering if Washington can finally get its act together.

Cubs get World Series flashbacks amid craziness of Max Scherzer meltdown

Cubs get World Series flashbacks amid craziness of Max Scherzer meltdown

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.”

Predicting the outcome of Cubs-Nationals winner-take-all Game 5

Predicting the outcome of Cubs-Nationals winner-take-all Game 5

The Cubs know full well the crapshoot that is a one-game playoff.

After besting the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 2015 wild-card game and playing a tense, thrilling Game 7 last fall, winner-take-all games are nothing new to Joe Maddon and Co.

But while the Cubs are 2-0 in those winner-take-all games the last two years (and 4-1 overall in elimination games), anything can happen in one game. Things can shift on one play or one pitch and luck plays an enormous factor with so little wiggle room.

So you'll forgive Maddon if he and the Cubs didn't want this at all — a Game 5 in front of a packed, raucous Washington crowd with all hands on deck.

That's why Maddon went all in on Game 4, trying to lock up the NLDS at Wrigley Field Wednesday night, employing Jon Lester out of the bullpen for 11 outs. 

But a combination of Stephen Strasburg's wiffle ball action, a shaky defensive play and Michael A. Taylor's stunning grand slam, the Cubs' title defense now comes down to just one game with Kyle Hendricks on the hill vs. Gio Gonzalez.

The Nationals just announced Gonzalez as a starter Thursday afternoon. The Cubs jumped him early in Game 2 in Washington for three runs before ultimately blowing it in the eighth inning.

Here's how the Cubs will line up behind The Professor:

1. Jon Jay - LF
2. Kris Bryant - 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Willson Contreras - C
5. Albert Almora Jr. - CF
6. Addison Russell - SS
7. Jason Heyward - RF
8. Javy Baez - 2B
9. Kyle Hendricks - P

It's interesting that Ben Zobrist didn't make the cut, as the reigning World Series MVP has a modest three-game hitting streak in this NLDS, including the only extra-base hits off Max Scherzer and Strasburg the last two games (both doubles). But Zobrist and Ian Happ will be weapons off the bench as switch-hitters in a game that figures to feature plenty of pitching changes and bullpen matchups.

The Nationals counter with a familiar lineup behind Gonzalez:

1. Trea Turner - SS
2. Jayson Werth - LF
3. Bryce Harper - RF
4. Ryan Zimmerman - 3B
5. Daniel Murphy - 2B
6. Anthony Rendon - 3B
7. Matt Wieters - C
8. Michael A. Taylor - CF
9. Gio Gonzalez

[RELATED — 10 reasons for Cubbie confidence]

The Cubs always want to get out to a good start, but the need for an early lead (hey, that rhymed!) is even greater in these one-game, winner-take-all postseason contests.

Especially because Scherzer looms in the bullpen for the Nationals. He threw 98 pitches on Monday night and is coming off a hamstring injury less than two weeks ago, so who knows how may pitches/innings Scherzer can throw Thursday night.

But his presence looms large, as well as a mostly-rested Nationals bullpen. If Gonzalez gets into any trouble, Dusty Baker can immediately turn to Game 4 starter-turned-watcher Tanner Roark, who has yet to pitch in this series. Or Scherzer could be the immediate call and the Nationals just ride him as long as they can.

The Cubs, meanwhile, will be almost assuredly be without Lester after he threw 55 pitches Wednesday night. Wade Davis and Carl Edwards Jr. also threw and combined to get zero outs in another eighth-inning collapse. 

Davis is a battle-tested veteran who is intensely even-keeled and Taylor's homer was only the second allowed by the Cubs closer in his postseason career (34.1 innings) and first as a reliever. But how many outs could he realistically go after throwing 11 pitches Wednesday? He's a former starter, but has gone over 30 pitches in an outing just six times since the start of 2014 (a span of 267 appearances) and has never reached the 40-pitch mark.

The Cubs will have Jose Quintana available out of the bullpen, after he matched Scherzer inning for inning Monday night. But that was his first postseason game ever and he hasn't appeared as a reliever since 2012, so if Maddon calls Q's number, it will be a foreign experience for the 28-year-old lefty.

The Cubs could use another patiently dominant outing from Hendricks and his 1.98 postseason ERA after lulling the Nationals offense to sleep in Game 1, but ultimately this game will come down to which offense is able to break out of its slump just enough to win.

The Cubs (.159 average, .514 OPS) and Nationals (.130, .493) have the two worst offenses in MLB postseasons this fall and have combined for just 20 runs in the first four games of this series.

The Nationals have scored 12 of those, nine of which have come in the two eighth-inning implosions in Games 2 and 4. Two of the other runs came of the unearned variety off Cubs errors in the last two games at Wrigley Field.

The positive news for the Cubs: They won't have to face Strasburg at all after striking out 22 times and scoring just two unearned runs against the Nationals stud righty in two games.

Prediction — Cubs 5, Nationals 4

Kris Bryant puts his first inning struggles (0-for-4, 4 Ks) behind him in the series and gets the Cubs on the board early with an opening-frame homer. He hits two longballs in the game as the Cubs' bats finally wake up and he makes Wednesday's Golden Sombrero (4 Ks) a distant memory.

Albert Almora Jr. and Kyle Schwarber (off the bench) combine for three hits and the Cubs pitch just enough to win, with Maddon cobbling together the bullpen behind yet another gutsy performance from Hendricks.

These two offenses are far too good to be kept down for long.