How do you explain an inning that saw Max Scherzer, one of baseball’s best starters, come out of the bullpen in a winner-take-all Game 5 of the NL Division Series presented by T-Mobile, and give up four runs on three straight two-out hits, an intentional walk, a contested passed-ball strikeout call, catcher’s interference and a hit batter?
“Baseball. That’s baseball,” Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward said. “Regardless of the stage, baseball’s gonna happen.”
But how did this happen? How did the Nationals let a two-run lead slowly evaporate with their best pitcher on the mound? How did the Cubs put up four runs, all of them with two outs, using only one hit?
“It’s the playoffs. Anything can happen,” Scherzer said. “I’m sure I’ve been part of crazy things before, but nothing like that. That’s playoff baseball. You’ve got to be able to withstand anything and be ready for any situation. You’ve just got to find a way to execute. We just couldn’t find a way to get that last out.”
Summoned in the fifth inning to hold a 4-3 lead and get the ball to the Nats’ late-inning relievers, Scherzer quickly retired Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo on six pitches. Then cleanup man Willson Contreras legged out an infield single, and pinch-hitter Ben Zobrist placed a single in shallow left field. Up came Addison Russell, who ripped a changeup into the left-field corner for a double, driving in both runners.
“Addison Russell is such a clutch player. He was just hungry for that swing down the line there that put us in the lead,” Zobrist said. “That really made us feel like we got over the hump in the early part of the game.”
As for everything after that?
“It was nutty,” Zobrist said.
With first base open, Scherzer intentionally walked Heyward. Javier Baez swung at three straight pitches, including a third-strike slider that slipped through catcher Matt Wieters‘ legs to the backstop. Wieters, who was struck in the mask during Baez’s backswing, compounded his mistake after recovering the passed ball, by firing it past both first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and second baseman Daniel Murphy. Baez reached second, Heyward advanced to third and Russell scored on the play.
Wieters admitted he should have blocked Scherzer’s pitch, but he attempted to appeal the play by citing interference on Baez’s backswing. Home-plate umpire Jerry Layne, the crew chief, told Wieters the rule only applies when a runner is attempting to steal a base.
“Backswing interference is a play where a guy is stealing or there’s a play being made by a runner hindering the catch. It was a wild pitch and went past him,” Layne said. “That is no longer in that particular description, in my judgment. In my judgment, the passed ball changed the whole rule around to where, in my judgment, it had nothing to do with everything [that happened]. Therefore, it didn’t have any effect on it, in my judgment.”
Scherzer’s third pitch to the next batter, pinch-hitter Tommy La Stella, was a cutter inside. Wieters reached out to receive the pitch, and La Stella’s bat made contact with the catcher’s mitt. La Stella was awarded first base on catcher’s interference.
“It’s a bad time for me to have one of my worst defensive nights of my career,” Wieters said. “It will take a little while to get over it.”
Three pitches later, Scherzer plunked Jon Jay — the ninth Cubs hitter to bat in the fifth — with a cutter to force in a run. He finally retired Bryant, for the second time, to end the string of seven straight Cubs who reached safely in the 28-pitch frame. Scherzer said he never lost his composure on the mound, but he was clearly frustrated with the part he played in the Nationals’ latest postseason defeat.
“They all burn. This one burns,” Scherzer said. “I don’t know how else to describe it.”
But both clubs tried to do just that, the Nationals searching for answers as the Cubs relived their opportunistic rally. Zimmerman called it “one of the craziest games I think I’ve ever been a part of.”
Closer Sean Doolittle chalked it up as a “really weird inning.”
Cubs manager Joe Maddon said the whole night was “bizarro world, there’s no question about it.”
Theo Epstein called the Cubs’ comeback “crazy” and smiled as he said Baez’s “strikeout-wild pitch is a huge part of our offense.”
How else to explain it?
“You’re playing against great teams. You’ve got to find a way to get it done,” Heyward said. “At the end of the day, nobody’s going to say how it happened in this clubhouse or on the field. It’s just who won and who hung in there at the end.”