The Chicago Cubs‘ offense finally started putting runs across the plate like they had for the majority of the second half this season. Unfortunately, so did their bullpen. But the Cubs scored just enough runs to outlast their shaky relief corps and the Washington Nationals, winning the deciding fifth game of the NLDS by a score of 9-8.
Even before all the dramatics of the final few innings, this was one of the most bizarre playoff games you’ll ever see – much less an elimination game. If you watched from the beginning, you’d recall that this game was started by Kyle Hendricks for the Cubs and Gio Gonzalez for the Nats. Neither pitcher fared all that well, but what happened after each man left was really the story.
The Cubs used six pitchers out of the bullpen, including Game 3 starter Jose Quintana. The final line for Chicago’s ‘pen was an ugly five innings, five hits, seven walks, five strikeouts, and four earned runs – all of those runs were scored in the sixth, seventh, and eighth inning.
But the offensive explosion will get overlooked in the madness. After scoring eight runs in total in the first four games of the series, the Cubs dropped nine on the Nationals pitching staff in Game 5. It was just enough, with closer Wade Davis getting the final seven outs and finishing it off with a strikeout of Bryce Harper.
The Cubs trailed 4-3 in the fifth inning when Max Scherzer came running out of the bullpen in right field. After having thrown 98 pitches just three days ago, the Nats ace came in with the plan of giving his team at least an inning or two to try to get the lead to the backend of the bullpen.
The Cubs jumped all over Scherzer, though. With two outs and nobody on base, Willson Contreras hit an infield single. Pinch-hitter Ben Zobrist dropped a little blooper into the outfield, sending Contreras to third. Addison Russell then scalded a double down the third base line to give the Cubs a 5-4 lead.
Even though it may have felt like it at times, the Cubs would never trail again.
But that wasn’t all for Scherzer. What happened next was a strange sequence that featured an intentional walk, a strikeout with a passed ball, a batter reaching on catcher’s interference, and a hit-by-pitch. When it was all said and done, the Cubs were leading 7-4. They’d push the lead to 8-4, but would enter the bottom of the ninth leading by just one run.
Dusty Baker’s new relievers did their job in keeping it close as Washington rallied, but that’s probably little consolation for the Nationals. Ryan Madson gave Washington five outs after throwing 27 pitches the day before, and closer Sean Doolittle pitched a perfect ninth inning with two strikeouts.
Taking this one back to the beginning, Washington looked to be in control early. A four-run second inning meant a 4-1 lead for the Nationals, who had Gio Gonzalez coming off a 1-2-3 inning and Scherzer looming in the bullpen. How could they lose?
The answer to that is “any way possible.”
Unfortunately for Nats fans, the franchise now extends their dubious streak of being unable to get out of the NLDS. Since the Expos relocated from Montreal to Washington D.C. and became the Nationals in 2005, the franchise has been in the division series four times in the last six seasons. Every year has ended in heartbreak.
Cubs fans are familiar with that feeling. Everyone knows about Chicago’s long streak of futility that came to an end in the 2016 World Series with an anxiety-filled Game 7. This one had a similar feel to it, and once again it’s the Cubs celebrating.
When Theo Epstein arrived in Chicago with the Cubs in late fall of 2011, the franchise had played in the NLCS just three times total – 1984, 1989, and 2003. After three losing seasons, the Cubs will now have played in the NLCS in three consecutive seasons. Epstein has preached sustained success as the path to a World Series for the Cubs, and that’s exactly what they’ve built.
This is truly the golden era of Cubs baseball that we’re living through. Maybe these heart-stopping win-or-go-home games are all worth it?
Going forward, it’s impossible to know where the Cubs go with their pitching staff. When the NLCS opens on Saturday night in Los Angeles, Hendricks will be on one day of rest following his 81-pitch effort in Game 5. Jake Arrieta will be on two days of rest after throwing 90 pitches in Game 4. Jon Lester came out of the bullpen and threw 55 pitches on Wednesday, and Quintana came out of the ‘pen with 12 pitches on Thursday.
At this point, the best guess would have to be Quintana facing off against Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers in Game 1, with Lester scheduled for Game 2.
But that’s getting a little far ahead. The Cubs and Nationals played an absolute classic playoff series. Chicago beat Stephen Strasburg in Game 1 behind an absolute gem from Hendricks. The Nats blow up the Cubs in the eighth inning to take Game 2. Scherzer no-hits the Cubs through six innings but Chicago finds a way to steal Game 3. Strasburg comes through with the mold game, and then this.
If you’re a fan of baseball, you can’t complain. That is, so long as the anxiety didn’t kill you.