Four times in the last six years, Washington has been dealt a first-round exit from the postseason. In three of those opportunities, the club was just one win away from reaching the NL Championship Series presented by Camping World.
It was never going to be an easy task for the Nationals to supplant the defending World Series champions, even with home-field advantage.
“The Cubs are a great team. They’re world champs,” said Bryce Harper, who went 2-for-4, but struck out to end the series. “They know how to win and go about their business the right way. They’ve got a great [coaching]staff over there and a great team. We do as well, but they just came out on top this time.”
Washington players said all week — despite trailing 1-0 and 2-1 in the series — they put prior postseason woes behind them. And perhaps, mentally, they did. This was a new year, a revamped group. They were focused on beating Chicago, not what happened in 2016, 2014 or 2012.
Ultimately, it was not enough to knock off the reigning champs and get over the hump that has seemingly haunted the franchise since it moved to Washington in 2005.
The Cubs rapidly nixed the upper hand the Nationals began the series with, stealing a victory at Nationals Park in Game 1. Each time Washington fought back throughout the five-game set, Chicago answered, until the well of comeback attempts ran dry.
The Nats had one final chance, trailing by a run in the ninth inning Thursday night with the top of their order coming up to bat against Cubs closer Wade Davis. Trea Turner flied out before Jayson Werth, playing in possibly his final game as a National, struck out.
Harper stepped to the plate, the sellout crowd desperate for one last act of heroism from its star player. The All-Star slugger worked Davis to a full count, but swung through a low-and-inside cutter to end the game.
Joe Maddon’s bullpen lacked options late in the game, and so he relied on his best pitcher to record the final seven outs to finish the game. Davis’ seven-out save is something only the five players in history have managed to do, last accomplished by the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner in 2014.
“That’s how you’d draw it up if you could, top of the order, you know, if one of those guys gets on,” Turner said. “Wade, he did a heck of a job. He had to do something he’d never done before.”
Davis’ performance highlighted a gusty effort all-around from Chicago. After falling behind 4-1, the Cubs put up two runs in the third inning and added four more in the fifth to take a commanding lead it would not relinquish.
Maddon got impressive performances throughout the series from superstars Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, among others, but the resiliency of his bullpen — namely that of Davis, who served up a grand slam to Michael A. Taylor in Game 4, and rebounded in a big way Thursday — is what pushed Chicago into the next round.
“I thought our guys did a great job battling. They put together some really good at-bats against [Davis] all throughout the series,” said Sean Doolittle, who fired two scoreless innings over the course of the week. “He’s one of the best relievers in all of baseball, but our guys did not back down. We put the pressure on him and we were hoping that because he made so many great pitches, sooner or later he would run out of gas. It was kind of a bullpen war of attrition for a little while and I thought we were going to be able to get him, but he outlasted us.”