WASHINGTON -- Three down, eight to go. That's the countdown for Cubs' wins in their bid to repeat as defending World Series champions. They needed to rally Thursday night against the Nationals and Max Scherzer with a bizarre fifth inning that checked nearly every item in the box score to post a 9-8 Game 5 victory and clinch the National League Division Series presented by T-Mobile.
• Gear up for the National League Championship Series
Next stop is Los Angeles, where the Cubs will face the Dodgers in a rematch of the NL Championship Series presented by Camping World, which begins Saturday at Dodger Stadium. The two NL teams join the American League Championship Series finalists -- the Astros and Yankees -- in baseball's Fall 4.
• NLCS Game 1: Tonight, 8 p.m. ET/7 CT on TBS
"That's one of the most incredible victories I've ever been part of," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "Under the circumstances, in the other team's ballpark, after a tough loss at home [in Game 4], to come back and do that, give our guys all the credit in the world."
:: NLDS schedule and coverage ::
Addison Russell had four RBIs, hitting a pair of clutch run-scoring doubles, to spark the Cubs, who will be making their third straight trip to the LCS. Their resilience was tested by the Nationals.
"I would say this is the most fun I've had playing in a baseball game, and it ranks right up there with winning the World Series," Russell said.
"We knew at the start of the series, the start of the postseason, Joe talks about how there's going to be moments where things aren't going your way," Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward said. "It's not so important that you keep them from happening as how you're going to respond to them. You know they're going to happen at some point. We had a few of those moments tonight, but we don't dwell on them. We go to the next moment, focus on the next pitch, then we get back at it and believe we're going to find a way."
It was a whirlwind of a winner-take-all game, and extended into the wee hours of Friday the 13th. There were big home runs by the Nationals' Michael A. Taylor and Daniel Murphy, starting pitchers used in relief, closers going extended innings, and a huge pickoff. And that doesn't include the wacky Chicago fifth inning.
"Usually there's three or four or five plays that change the landscape of the game, or decide the game," said Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth, whose misplay on a two-out fly ball in the sixth resulted in a run for the Cubs. "I feel like there was like 50 plays in this game. This is like the craziest game I've ever been a part of."
The Cubs needed seven pitchers, starting with four innings from Kyle Hendricks and ending with a seven-out save from closer Wade Davis. Chicago scratched out runs on groundouts, errors, hit batters and missed line drives.
"It was nutty," Chicago's Benjamin Zobrist said. "In the end, you've got to win those kinds of games, too. That's what great teams do. We were able to pull out a crazy one."
It started with Cubs second baseman Javier Baez throwing out speedy Nationals leadoff hitter Trea Turner at the plate in the first. With the infield in and one out, Turner broke from third on contact when Bryce Harper hit a ground ball to Baez, who barely had to move to field it and fired home for the out.
Despite the early setback, Washington built a four-run lead for Giovany Gonzalez, who lasted three innings. After Matt Albers got through a clean fourth, the Nats called on Scherzer for the fifth. The ace got two quick outs, but what followed was two singles, a double, an intentional walk, a strikeout and passed ball, an error on catcher's interference, and a hit batter.
"It was bizarro world, there's no question about it," Maddon said of the fifth.
Three times the Nationals had reached the postseason, and three times it ended in heartbreak. They believed this year was different. This was their deepest team, their most talented.
• Feinsand: Nats left waiting for next year
"It's very disappointing not to be going to L.A., not to go home and see my family and play in Dodger Stadium and go to the next step," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. "You know, it was just a tough game to lose."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Taylor does it again: Taylor received the loudest cheers of the night during pregame introductions for his grand-slam heroics in Game 4. And on his first at-bat of Game 5, the outfielder tomahawked a three-run home run into the stands in left field, and the reception was even louder. The pitch from Hendricks was 4.06 feet above home plate, the second-highest pitch hit for a homer run by anyone in the postseason since Statcast™ began tracking in 2015. Taylor drove in a franchise-record eight runs during this NLDS.
Cubs rally against Scherzer: With a one-run lead, the Nationals called upon Scherzer, their ace and NL Cy Young Award favorite, out of the bullpen. They were hoping to get two innings from Scherzer, and he came out pumping fastballs in the upper 90s to retire the first two batters, Kristopher Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, with ease. Then the Cubs put together an unlikely rally, as seven consecutive hitters reached base.
"You're just numb," Scherzer said. "Things weren't going my way; fine, what do I have to do next? ... You can't ride the emotional roller coaster in that situation. You stay numb -- and I was. The situation didn't amp up where I was going too fast."
Here's how the Cubs' fifth-inning rally looked: an infield single, a bloop single, a two-run double from Russell down the third-base line, an intentional walk, a dropped third strike that turned into a passed ball and a throwing error to score another run, a catcher's interference, a hit batter to score another run before Bryant popped out to short to end the inning.
Handing the ball to Davis: The Nationals did not go quietly, as they rallied in the seventh. C.J. Edwards began the inning with a leadoff walk, which prompted the Cubs to bring in Jose Quintana for his first relief appearance since 2012. Quintana got an out, then gave up a single and a walk to bring up Harper with the bases loaded. Harper drove in a run on a sacrifice fly and Maddon turned to his closer in the seventh. Davis struck out Ryan Zimmerman to end the inning.
Davis threw 44 pitches to close it out, the last of which was thrown to strike out Harper in the ninth. He knew he was the last man standing.
"I looked down there [in the bullpen] a couple times, and nobody was warming up," Davis said.
"We know them and they know us. It'll be another intense series." -- Cubs reliever Pedro Strop, on facing the Dodgers
"Seriously, I'm still trying to wrap my head around this one. I just keep thinking of different stuff that was happening that was off the wall. I'll probably go watch the whole game back, re-live it, torture myself." -- Werth, on what could be his final game with the Nationals
"They all burn. This one burns. I don't know how else to describe it. You're just going to be sitting there kicking yourself the whole offseason." -- Scherzer, on another playoff exit
AFTER FURTHER REVIEW
The Cubs began the game with a leadoff double by Jonathan Jay, although Harper made it close at second with a throw that beat Jay to the base. It was so close that the Nationals challenged the call, but Turner did not tag Jay and the call on the field stood. Jay advanced to third on a wild pitch from Gonzalez, then scored on a groundout from Rizzo.
Chicago scored another run in the seventh inning after the Nationals could not turn a double play on a groundout from Bryant with runners at the corners. Anthony Rendon fielded the ball deep at third base and near the line, but rather than throw home to try to prevent the run, he went around the horn in an attempt at an inning-ending double play. Washington believed Jay violated the slide rule going into second base, but after review, the call on the field was confirmed and the Cubs had an insurance run that proved to be the game-winner.
Jose Lobaton ventured too far off first base in the eighth inning with runners on first and second, prompting a pickoff throw from catcher Willson Contreras. Lobaton was initially ruled safe after he appeared to slide in ahead of the throw, but a crew-chief review overturned the call, as replays showed he came off the base.
"I thought I was safe; I didn't know my foot came off," Lobaton said. "I was ready for [the throw]. I was ready for it."
Said Cubs first baseman Rizzo: "You've got to take chances there. When we call a play like that, the heart starts beating real fast. You've got to control it. Willson made a great throw, and luckily [Lobaton's] foot came off."
Cubs: The Cubs will open the NLCS against the Dodgers on Saturday at 7 p.m. CT. Quintana is expected to start Game 1, although the team has yet to announce that. John Lackey is another option.
Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.
Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.