Cubs' series clincher over Nationals was one for the books


What words best describe how fans felt after the Cubs outlasted the Nationals, 9-8, last October in Game 5 of the National League Division Series? 

Relieved, exhilarated or exhausted? 

Inspired or amazed? 

Comfortably numb? 

No matter what adjectives are chosen, Cubs fans had every right to feel that way. 

In a roller-coaster season of epic highs and lows, that series-clinching, 4-hour, 37-minute affair on a raw, windy night at Nationals Park was easily the Cubs' craziest game of the year, an instant classic that will be remembered in team lore for years to come. 

It wasn't exactly pretty, but you couldn't take your eyes off it if you tried. 

"That's the only clinching game I'm never going to watch a single highlight of," Cubs President Theo Epstein said afterward, dripping champagne in manager Joe Maddon's office. "I'm never going to watch a video of it. I don't even think it really happened." 

According to several thousand eyewitnesses, including a shivering Chicago media contingent forced to type their dispatches with frozen fingers because the Nationals refused to close the press box windows, it really did happen. 

And more than two months later, as 2017 crawls to the finish line on its hands and knees, the series clincher remains the undisputed game of the year for Chicago sports teams. 

The NLDS had been an old-school pitchers' delight for the first four games, and when Nats star Stephen Strasburg rediscovered his guts before Game 4, recovering from an alleged mold-related illness to shut down the Cubs at Wrigley Field and force a do-or-die finale in Washington, the momentum suddenly shifted. 

There were few early signs of what was in store for Cubs fans, who were already on bonus points after the 2016 championship. 

The Cubs trailed 4-3 in the fifth inning when Nationals manager Dusty Baker called on Max Scherzer to relieve Matt Albers, who pitched a perfect fourth in relief of shaky starter Gio Gonzalez. After a hamstring injury precluded him from starting either of the series' first two games, Scherzer had allowed only one hit in 61/3 innings in the Nats' Game 3 loss. So it wasn't exactly a good omen when "Mad Max" quickly retired Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. 

But back-to-back singles from Willson Contreras and pinch-hitter Ben Zobrist awoke the Cubs, and a two-run double by Addison Russell put them ahead. Baker then ordered an intentional walk to Jason Heyward before all hell broke loose. 

Scherzer struck out Javier Baez on a slider to seemingly end the inning, but the pitch got past catcher Matt Wieters, and Baez scampered to first. Wieters promptly threw wildly to first, allowing Baez to advance and Russell to score. 

Wieters argued that Baez's bat hit Wieters' mask after Baez missed the ball. Plate umpire Jerry Layne ignored the plea even though replays confirmed Wieters' account. That should've negated the rest of the play, taking away the run, thanks to Rule 6.03, which states if a bat hits a catcher on a swing "the ball will be dead ... and no runner shall advance on the play." 

Wieters and Baker were disgusted, but there was no way to reverse the decision. Tommy La Stella then reached on catcher's interference by Wieters, and Jon Jay was hit by a pitch to force in another run, making it 7-4 Cubs. 

Maddon called on closer Wade Davis with two outs in the seventh to help preserve a 9-7 lead, but when Jose Lobaton's RBI single in the eighth cut the deficit to one run, the ghost of Aroldis Chapman hovered over Nationals Park. 

Had Maddon burned out his closer once again? 

Before you could toss a brick at your TV, Lobaton inexplicably strayed off first base with a runner on second. The Nats breathed a sigh of relief when Contreras' throw to the bag barely missed nailing him. Or so it seeemed. 

The Cubs challenged the call after video replay assistant Nate Halm saw an angle showing Lobaton's foot barely coming off the bag after Rizzo's late tag. 

The challenge worked. The call was reversed, the inning was over, and the Nationals were toast. 

Davis got through an uneventful ninth, striking out Bryce Harper on his 44th pitch to end it, sending the Cubs off to Los Angeles for their third straight National League Championship Series. 

In a season that began with the mantra "That's Cub," Game 5 was a throwback to the way the Cubs used to lose big games. But now the Nats were thrust into in the role the Cubs once assumed. 

"We'll take it," a front office executive yelled in the celebratory clubhouse. 

Epstein called Game 5 a "war of attrition" that the Cubs simply gutted out. 

"It seemed impossible," he said. "We weren't throwing strikes. Jerry Layne has a real tight zone and it just made things really difficult, and we kind of got in our own way at times. 

"In the end, our guys, as always, seemingly had just enough to power their way through." 

Two weeks after the game, MLB Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre admitted to SiriusXM radio that Layne made an incorrect call on Baez's swing that hit Wieter's mask. 

Torre said Layne's feeling was "the interference didn't take precedent over the fact that the ball was already past (Wieters) when the contact took place. However, the rule states that when contact is made — in other words, when the bat came around and hit the catcher's mask — it's a dead ball. It's a dead ball. And that's the one thing that should have taken precedence." 

But obviously it was way too late to matter. There are no do-overs in baseball. 

The Cubs ended the Nats' season, ultimately leading to the dismissal of Baker and the hiring of Cubs bench coach Dave Martinez as their next manager. 

Somehow, some way, the Cubs survived, despite hitting .180 with 52 strikeouts and only 27 hits in the five-game series. Rizzo and Bryant both hit .200, while Baez was hitless in 14 at-bats. 

Maddon pointed to the likes of Scherzer and Strasburg as the primary reason for the collective no-show, but the Cubs staged a rerun in the NLCS, hitting .156 against the Dodgers and losing 4-1 to end their season on a sour note. 

The Game 5 win over the Nats was relegated to a footnote in the 2017 season, a brief flashback to that omnipotent feeling of 2016 — the drought-breaking postseason when everything turned out OK for the Cubs no matter how many ominous things happened over the course of the games. 

Perhaps that feeling will return in 2018, when the World Series hangover becomes a distant memory, and the promise of a new year sparks hope for a better ending.


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