WASHINGTON -- The clubhouse had been prepared for a celebration. Temporary carpet had been installed on the floor and plastic was rolled up on the walls, ready to be unveiled to withstand a champagne celebration that would have washed away the disappointments of years past. Instead, the Nationals sat inside trying to make sense of it all, how such a promising season could end so abruptly once again.
The Nationals spent all season insisting this year's team was different. They were battle tested from this run of four division titles in six seasons. They entered the postseason with their deepest and most talented roster, put together devoid of any clear flaws. But October continued to be cruel to Washington. The latest blow came in the form of a 9-8 defeat at the hands of the defending World Series champion Cubs, who eliminated the Nationals in Game 5 of the National League Division Series presented by T-Mobile on Thursday night.
Four times the Nats have made it to this stage and four times it has ended in heartbreak. An exit so much earlier than they expected.
:: NLDS schedule and coverage ::
"It's just a gut punch again," Max Scherzer said. "Here we are in Game 5. We play our hearts out and everybody lays it on the line and fights to do whatever they can. It was a nail-biter game again. It just sucks because I know how hard everybody played. This game is cruel sometimes."
Nationals Park once again played host as the familiar venue. This was the third winner-take-all Game 5 here, and a sellout crowd of 43,849 was ready to see history. They got one of the most bizarre and entertaining postseason games ever. There were ups and downs, starters turned into relievers, pitchers extending themselves beyond their limits, runs scored in unconventional ways.
For a while, it looked like the Nationals were falling apart following a four-run fifth inning for the Cubs. Scherzer came into the game in relief with a 4-3 lead, hoping to throw two innings. He retired the first two batters. Then came an unlikely sequence that included an infield single, a bloop single, a two-run double, 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 and a hit batter to score another run. Chicago was gifted another run in the sixth after Jayson Werth lost a fly ball in the lights.
The game could have gotten away from the Nationals then, but they battled back as they have so often this season. They scored twice in the sixth, and tacked on runs in the seventh and eighth to cut the Cubs' lead to one. And in the ninth, they ended the game with Bryce Harper at the plate as the potential tying run.
"It felt like we were in it," Werth said. "It felt like it didn't matter what happened, I felt like we were going to win. That was the feeling across the team and across the board. It's crazy to think that we didn't win that game."
Perhaps at some point they will take solace in the fact that they battled back. Few players were ready to do so in the wee hours of Friday morning, which is understandable because the wounds were still fresh.
They were ready for a celebration, to finally put to rest questions of postseason demons and past failures. Now, they begin the offseason searching for answers.
"They all burn. This one burns. I don't know how else to describe it," Scherzer said. "You're just going to be sitting there kicking yourself the whole offseason."
The Nationals won 97 games, the second most in team history, as they ran away with the NL East. Their lineup was more stacked than ever as they put up record-breaking numbers. They had their two top pitchers, Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, ready to pitch in the playoffs for the first time. Their bullpen was transformed from a weakness in the first half into a strength in the second half.
"Obviously, right now it's easy to say it's a failure," first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "It's a failure for every team but one. I think we don't need to lose sight of what this organization has done over the past five or six years. I think there's a lot to be proud of.
"We all want to win. We all want to win the World Series. We all want to do this, that. But to be competitive, to do what we do every year, it's a pretty special organization. I'm not going to say it's a successful season. Every year you win the division, I don't think it's a bad season. I think it just shows how far we've come when you win the division, you win almost 100 games, and you have to ask that question. So I guess I'm proud you have to ask me that question. About five or six years ago, I never thought I'd be standing here doing this pretty much every year."