CHICAGO -- Dave Martinez sat his office in the visiting clubhouse at Wrigley Field, his mind still processing how the Nationals managed to lose Sunday night to the Cubs in a game where they played so well for nearly the entire game.
He shook his head, paused often and measured his words during his postgame news conference. He pointed out that his team had played so well Sunday, and has been playing so well for weeks and that the Nats will be fine, and then he repeated himself a few times almost as if he was trying to still convince himself after a 4-3 loss in heartbreaking fashion.
David Bote hit a pinch-hit, walk-off grand slam against Ryan Madson with two outs and two strikes in the ninth inning to hand the Nationals one of their most crushing regular-season defeats in club history. The setback spoiled a dominant start from Max Scherzer, cost them a chance to pull closer to first-place than they have been in more than month and saddled the Nats with a series loss when they could very easily have earned a sweep.
"It's a gut punch," Scherzer said.
"For 8 2/3 innings we played really good baseball," Martinez said. "Really good baseball. We left here with one win, we should have had three."
The Nats led, 3-0, entering the ninth inning and appeared to be headed toward one of their best wins of the season, making what transpired that much more deflating.
After coming in as a defensive replacement, Wilmer Difo could not make a play to retire Jason Heyward on a grounder to second base for an infield single. Then Madson hit both Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras with errant pitches. That set the stage for Bote, who hammered a two-strike fastball that caught too much of the plate. After the game, Madson would reveal he has been battling a back issue that sends pain down his right leg, and it flared up while he was warming up in the bullpen.
"I had a good fastball. I tried to cut a couple tonight again, but with the back issue, especially the last one, it almost feels like the ball comes out muted out of my hand," Madson said. "It probably looks a lot better to the hitter. That was the last one. It didn't come out of my hand very well."
Scherzer was at his best, grunting and screaming on the mound as he traded zeros with Cole Hamels. The Nats gave him a 1-0 lead in the second inning, and Scherzer was ready to make it hold, striking out 11 in seven shutout innings and flummoxing the Cubs' lineup. Scherzer is perhaps the favorite to capture his third straight NL Cy Young Award, and his effort Sunday was one of his best this year.
• Max let's out epic grunt while fanning Baez
Hamels was also locked in on the mound, as he gave up one run on one hit in seven innings while striking out nine and retiring the final 18 batters he faced.
"That's just when you need to dig down deep and find a way to keep throwing up zeros, because of how important this game is," Scherzer said. "That's where it's fun to compete, those type of games."
The Nats were clinging to a 1-0 lead until the ninth, when Ryan Zimmerman collected a two-run single after the Cubs intentionally walked Bryce Harper to load the bases, a scene that called flashbacks to a series at Wrigley Field in 2016, when Chicago walked Harper 13 times in four games.
"I was on the other side when we walked him upteen times," Martinez said. "It was good to see. I loved it, good for him and I'm proud of him."
Given that extra breathing room, it made the ninth inning even more crushing. The loss keeps the Nationals 5 1/2 games behind the Braves and Phillies, who are tied for first place in the NL East.
"Sometimes this happens. It's about how you respond to this," Scherzer said. "We've got an important series beginning in St. Louis tomorrow. We've got to come ready to play. We really need a win tomorrow to get momentum back on our side, cause tonight sucks. There's no other way to say it. We just didn't get the job done. And we've got to find a way to play really good baseball again tomorrow."
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
The Nats won a crucial challenge in the eighth inning after Javier Baez was ruled safe on a grounder to Mark Reynolds at third base after hustling down the line in an even 4.00 seconds with an elite max sprint speed of 30.3 feet per second, as measured by Statcast™. But the call was overturned after a review of 1:52 seconds, to end the inning and protect Washington's 1-0 lead.
HE SAID IT
"I want it to linger right now for 30 minutes and think about it. And let's come back tomorrow and not make the same mistakes. Let's keep playing the way we're playing, because we're playing with a lot of intensity. They're fired up. The boys are playing really well." -- Martinez, on rebounding after a tough loss
"I've gotten a lot of pats on the back like, 'Get 'em tomorrow.' That's the sign of a good team, a quality team that's together. I was expecting that, but it's more than usual." -- Madson, on support from his teammates
The Nationals travel to St. Louis for a four-game series with the Cardinals starting Monday at 8:10 p.m. ET. The Nats are hopeful third baseman Anthony Rendon will be back in the lineup after missing the past two starts with a left wrist contusion. Tommy Milone will be on the mound for Washington against St. Louis' Miles Mikolas.