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Nationals suffer postseason heartbreak yet again in lengthy, controversial Game 5 loss

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Nationals suffer postseason heartbreak yet again in lengthy, controversial Game 5 loss

WASHINGTON -- The Chicago Cubs win whenever they need to, with whatever it takes, even a seven-out save by Wade Davis to preserve a shrinking lead and a "Did that really happen?" four-run inning against Washington's Max Scherzer in a thriller of a Game 5.

That wild, bat-around fifth inning Thursday night for Chicago included Addison Russell's go-ahead two-run double, a bases-loaded hit-by-pitch, and a disputed dropped third strike followed by a throwing error, helping the defending World Series champion Cubs come back -- and then hold on -- to edge the Nationals 9-8 and reach the NL Championship Series for the third year in a row.

Russell drove in a total of four runs, and Davis, Chicago's seventh pitcher, turned in his longest appearance since 2012. The Cubs trailed 4-1, then led 8-4 and 9-6, in a game that lasted more than 4 hours and ended after midnight on Friday.

Catcher Willson Contreras picked off Jose Lobaton at first base to quash a Washington threat in the eighth and Davis fanned a swinging Bryce Harper for the final out.

Chicago, which surpassed its total of eight runs in the first four games of the NL Division Series, advanced to face the Los Angeles Dodgers, who will start ace Clayton Kershaw at home in Game 1 of the NLCS on Saturday night.

For manager Joe Maddon and the Cubs, this was their fourth consecutive victory in a win-or-be-eliminated postseason game. That includes three straight to end the 2016 World Series, when Chicago trailed the Cleveland Indians 3-1 before forcing a Game 7 won by the Cubs in 10 innings.

The Nationals, meanwhile, went one-and-done yet again: This is the fourth time in the past six years that the club won the NL East and immediately lost its opening playoff series. And this is the third time in that span that Washington bowed out with a Game 5 NLDS loss at home; that also happened in 2012 against the St. Louis Cardinals and last year against the Dodgers.

This one was played exactly five years to the day after the decider against the Cardinals, which the Nationals lost 9-7 in Washington. Just like that night, the Nationals started Gio Gonzalez. Just like that night, Washington raced out to an early lead (6-0 back then). And just like that night, Gonzalez had control problems and started giving back some of the edge.

Homers by Daniel Murphy and Michael A. Taylor -- whose grand slam off Davis backed Stephen Strasburg's 12-strikeout masterpiece in Washington's 5-0 victory in Game 4 at Wrigley Field on Wednesday -- gave the hosts a 4-1 lead in the second against Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks.

But Gonzalez gave back two of those runs, so it was 4-3 as two-time Cy Young Award winner Scherzer entered for the fifth. He started Game 3 of this series, pushed back because of an injured right hamstring, and hadn't come out of the bullpen since 2013 with the Detroit Tigers.

By the time Scherzer's one inning was over, the Cubs had taken a 7-4 lead. They scored two earned runs and two unearned runs, on the strength of three hits, one hit by pitch, one intentional walk, a catcher's interference, and one very odd play.

What could have been a potentially inning-ending strikeout turned into a run, as Javier Baez swung and missed, but the ball went under catcher Matt Wieters' glove and through his legs. When Wieters collected the ball, he threw it into right field for an error, then appeared to argue that the play should have been ruled over because Baez's follow-through carried the bat into the catcher's mask.

Russell made it 8-4 in the sixth on an RBI double when left fielder Jayson Werth tried to make a sliding catch but whiffed. The lead was 9-6 when Washington got one run in the seventh on Harper's sacrifice fly, and one in the eighth on Taylor's RBI single.

But the Nationals wasted some opportunities. In the eighth, with two on and no outs, pinch-hitter Adam Lind hit into a double play. Later in that inning, again with two men aboard, Lobaton was nailed by Contreras' snap throw for the third out -- Lobaton was originally ruled safe, a call that was overturned on replay.

In the seventh, Ryan Zimmerman was up as the go-ahead run with two men on, but Davis struck him out. That was part of an 0 for 4, three-K night for the first baseman who had a resurgent season, leading the Nationals with 36 homers and 108 RBIs.

That season is over for him and his team. The Cubs, though, will play on.

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Nationals players were critical of Dave Martinez's decision-making in the first half

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Nationals players were critical of Dave Martinez's decision-making in the first half

Baseball fans love the long ball. They love the flashy plays. They love the no-hit bids and the rare perfect game. All of these things dominate headlines and capture our attention. 

The often overlooked bullpen of a club, however, almost always serves as the glue holding everything together. Relief pitching is derived of unsung heroes who are asked to perform on short notice and in sticky, high-pressure situations. 

Head skipper of the Washington Nationals, Dave Martinez, is being criticized for his handling of the bullpen during the first half of the season. 

By now it's well-documented that the Nats played their first 96 games at .500 leaving the club in third place in a division the team has dominated much of the last two years. 

Sure, one can chalk it up to injuries, lack of roster changes or an inexperienced first-year manager working through kinks. But, there's a reason this team expects to compete for a pennant year in and year out: depth. The buzz around Martinez's decision-making continues to point toward his inability to dish out relief pitching assignments to the player's liking.  

Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson, Sean Doolittle, Sammy Solis and Matt Grace once made up the team's relief staff in May. Between disabled-list stints for Kintzler and Madson, and Sammy Solis being sent down to Class AAA Syracuse, the staff took a beating in the month of June. 

It's not that Nats relievers are upset about heavy usage but more so for a lack of communication between player and manager. 

“A lot of times when Davey asks, you just tell him, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m good,’ ” Madson said. “He’s got a lot of stuff to worry about. It’s typical for bullpen guys not to be as honest with the manager. That’s just the dynamic there.”

But there did reach a point where relievers -- most often Kintzler, Madson and Solis -- felt overworked and that their wishes were not being acknowledged nor granted by Martinez. 

Sean Doolittle was quick to point out that the addition of Kelvin Herrera, who joined the team on June 18, sparked a change in Martinez's approach. 

“Over the last maybe month or so, maybe since we got Herrera, he’s gone around to the relievers and been a lot more proactive with that communication,” Doolittle said. “I think that’s helped.”

On a more complicated note, trust has also been targeted as an area needing improvement. 

When a starter gets in a jam or doesn't seem like he is 100%, Martinez often calls on reinforcements to begin the warming up process. Guys have noticed a pattern in which relief pitchers who initially warm up are often not the ones who start the following inning. 

From a relief pitcher's perspective, this is a sign of Martinez's distrust. Dramatic or not, there was a glaring disconnect throughout the first half of play. 

“With a veteran group, I think we all expect to come into a team and say we’ve all been there; we just want things to go boom, boom, boom and be a piece of cake. But we also all know it’s not like that,” Shawn Kelley said. “ . . . It’s funny: I think you could probably go anywhere and complain about the manager 

as a reliever. I don’t know if any manager has ever had seven relievers say, ‘He was perfect.’ ”

Handling his veteran rotation in the second half of the season should become easier for Martinez as Stephen Strasburg is expected to start Friday. The right-hander was placed on the disabled list June 10 with right shoulder inflammation. 

Strasburg pitched 5 2/3 innings in a rehab start for Class A Potomac on Sunday, allowing three runs while striking out seven and walking one. It was his second rehab start since going on the DL. He allowed one run in 3 1/3 innings for Potomac on July 11. Strasburg is 6-6 with a 3.46 ERA this season, striking out 

95 in 80 2/3 innings.

One thing that hasn't been criticized is Martinez's positive attitude. Players often rave about him as a person and how he brings a source of energy in the clubhouse. 

This was on full display during Monday night's Home Run Derby at Nationals Park. 

Moments after Bryce Harper won the Derby, Martinez was among the first to congratulate his All-Star slugger as he hoisted him in the air. 

As the second half of the season gets underway Friday, expect to see a manager who brings forth an openminded approach to his club while in pursuit of a deep October run. 

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Max Scherzer thoroughly enjoyed the All-Star experience in D.C.

Max Scherzer thoroughly enjoyed the All-Star experience in D.C.

All-Star Weekend is entertaining for fans and provides and much-needed break in the 162-game MLB season.

It’s not all just for fun, though. Following his start Tuesday night, Max Scherzer shared the benefits of being able to spend a few days sharing a locker room with players from across the league.

Being in the clubhouse, talking to veterans, talking to guys who have been here, getting to know everybody, getting the personalities, you can actually learn a lot from the other players in the league. They’re watching you, they’re watching your team and you get these conversations and it’s great. You’re talking about everybody and you find little things in the game that make them successful and what made you successful and see if you can get better.

Scherzer also didn’t hold back when talking about how great a job the city and his team did hosting the rest of the league. This is his sixth season as an All-Star, so he's speaking from quite a bit of experience.

It was awesome, what an atmosphere. I thought we were a great host team, all the other players in here loved the facilities and the treatment they received - D.C. did it right.

So according to Max Scherzer, the All-Star Game is great, but All-Star Weekend in D.C. is as good as it gets.

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