Nats left waiting for next year after '17 exit

NL East champions unable to get over NLDS hump

October 13th, 2017

WASHINGTON -- Clap. Clap. Clap.

Those were the only sounds echoing throughout the Nationals' clubhouse in the aftermath of their 9-8 loss to the Cubs on Thursday night in Game 5 of the National League Division Series presented by T-Mobile.

Another first-round loss meant another long winter of what-ifs for Washington, a team that appeared as well-rounded as it's ever been to make it over that previously unattainable hump.

:: NLDS schedule and coverage ::

Instead of spraying champagne on each other and preparing for a cross-country trip to Los Angeles, Nationals players, coaches and staff spent the first hour of Friday morning saying goodbye.

It felt like the last day of school. Only instead of wishing each other a good summer, it was "Have a good winter. See you next year."

The beige carpet temporarily installed in the home clubhouse at Nationals Park was supposed to soak up the remnants of a party, one representing the first postseason series win since they moved here from Montreal in 2005. All it did was deaden the clapping sound of teammates exchanging handshakes and hugs, wondering how a night that appeared to have so much promise deteriorated into another premature fall farewell.

"They all burn," said Max Scherzer, who was on the mound during the game-changing inning. "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."

Once Michael A. Taylor -- or as Nationals fans were now referring to him following his Game 4 grand slam, Michael A. Tater -- launched a three-run homer for a 4-1 second-inning lead, the night had a different feeling for the home team.

Until it didn't. Until it was exactly the same.

Oh, the details of their Game 5 demise didn't resemble their previous ousters in 2012, '14 and '16, but after a while, the losses begin to blend together.

"It's never easy," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "I thought we should have won all four times. We had the talent to win, but it didn't happen."

The three-run lead was trimmed to one in the third inning thanks to an ineffective , but as the game moved to the fifth, the Nationals were still clinging to a 4-3 lead.

Here came Scherzer, trying to add his name to that legendary list of aces doing October overtime out of the bullpen.

Pedro Martinez. Randy Johnson. Mike Mussina. . . . Surely Scherzer would add his name to that group and, more importantly, to Nationals lore.

Only he didn't.

The details were gory; far scarier to a Nationals fan than any Stephen King book. Scherzer quickly disposed of and , allowing the 43,849 to start dreaming big. Then, something happened. A lot happened, actually.

Infield single. Bloop single. Double. It's 5-4 Cubs.

Intentional walk. Strikeout/error/passed ball. Make that 6-4.

Catcher's interference. (Wait, what?) Hit by pitch. Lead up to 7-4.

"That was probably one of the weirdest innings I've ever seen," manager Dusty Baker said. "It was a series of bad events."

"It was bizarro world," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "There's no question about it."

By the time Scherzer retired Bryant for the second time in the inning, the four-run inning had taken the air out of the ballpark. Scherzer hadn't even pitched poorly -- only 's two-run double was a hard-hit ball -- yet things still managed to fall apart. You can't make this stuff up.

"You're just numb," Scherzer said, trying to describe the experience of such a strange inning.

The Nationals battled their way back, entering the ninth needing only one run to extend their season one more inning. , who had come into the game in the seventh to rescue the rest of the Cubs' bullpen, seemed to be running on fumes. He retired and , leaving the last hope to -- who else? -- .

Harper worked a full count before swinging through strike three. Ballgame over. Season over.

The sellout crowd had no choice but to fall back on that familiar refrain, the one which used to echo around Wrigleyville at the conclusion of each season.

Wait 'til next year.

For the Nationals, next year will be a critical one for the franchise. With Harper entering his final year before free agency, the proverbial window might be closing. Should Harper re-sign with Washington after 2018, that window will be wide open for the foreseeable future, but trying to speculate on his future 13 months in advance feels like wasted time.

Mike Rizzo has heard it all before.

"People have been talking about our two-year window for the last six years," Rizzo said. "We're built for the long haul. We're going to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and start grinding again for next season. We didn't play a clean game, but we played a game with passion and effort. We battled to the last out. I'm proud of that."

The Cubs erased 108 years of goat-riddled frustration last season, so why can't the Nationals figure things out by next October?

For starters, in Scherzer and , they have the 1-2 rotation punch all teams covet, though adding another dependable starter should be a priority in the coming months. They'll return and , who helped turn a woeful bullpen into a respectable one after their midseason acquisition.

The lineup will continue to be paced by Harper, Turner, , and , while will be back after missing all but 23 games this season. Werth is a free agent, but the emergence of Taylor and the presence of top prospect leave the Nationals very deep in the outfield.

"We have a good core of guys here on the current club, a good core of guys in the farm system to supplement us," Rizzo said. "We feel good about the future."

They're still the class of the NL East, so assuming they win another division title, what can Washington do to avoid a similar first-round fate for the fifth time in seven years?

"Just keep getting there, keep giving ourselves opportunities," Rizzo said. "It's like the Bulls when they had to overtake the Pistons after all those years [in the NBA], then they won six championships in eight years. You have to just keep going, man. Keep grinding, keep building, keep getting quality people in here. We're going to be fine here in Washington."

They'll just have to wait until next year.