- The Washington Times - Friday, October 14, 2016

When the ache is still so fresh and high in a throat, it’s hard to find the right words. The Washington Nationals’ veterans searched for a description of what happened after another gut-wrenching playoff series loss that only anchors thoughts about this group, this team, this organization, instead of pulling them apart in favor of different memories.

Jayson Werth spoke with a steady tone, though his formulation of concrete thoughts was difficult. This felt different than 2012 or 2014, he said. He wasn’t sure how, but it was. Maybe because aging amplifies the joy of entering the playoffs. Maybe because aging makes it clear the end is close, and that intensifies pain. There are only so many opportunities left for 37-year-old players.

“You feel like you get right there and you get it taken away from you right at the last second,” Werth said. “This one’s tough, it hurts. It was a crazy series. We battled, they battled. It was right there. Right there for us to get. Didn’t get it done, man. It sucks.”

The final score was Los Angeles Dodgers 4, Washington Nationals 3. That’s a laughingly simplistic way to encapsulate what happened Thursday night then into Friday morning in Game 5 of the Nationals League Division Series. Starting pitcher Max Scherzer was stunned by the game’s lurching. The seventh inning alone took 66 minutes. For Nationals fans, it may as well have contained one more six. A series filled with schedule changes, shocking stars, and stunning roles finished with a night never seen before by so many.

“That’s probably one of the craziest, if not the craziest game I’ve ever been a part of in my career, in my life,” Scherzer said. “Man, this is a tough one to be on the wrong side of.”

The game will be remembered for The Send, though so many other factors went into a 4:32 nine-inning game just to leave the first series of the playoffs. Three-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw recorded a save after convincing his manager, Dave Roberts, he could pitch an inning. That conversation occurred in the seventh, when Roberts blew in his hand then rolled closer Kenley Jansen to the mound nine outs from victory. He almost made it. When he couldn’t do it anymore, Kershaw came to retire Daniel Murphy and strike out Wilmer Difo, the 24-year-old prospect from the Dominican Republic that Nationals manager Dusty Baker had not heard of when he arrived at spring training.

“I don’t know no Difo,” Baker said in February. “Point him out when you see him.”

There he was Thursday in the chill of October wind, the last hope for the Nationals against a man Murphy referred to after the game as “the best pitcher on the planet.” A curveball struck out Difo. Kershaw raised both arms. It was over, the Nationals’ 2-1 series lead had evaporated in three days.

Murphy was the reason Kershaw was on the mound with only one day of rest since his Game 4 start in Los Angeles. The Dodgers left-hander walked to the bullpen when the eighth inning ended. Everyone braced. Six combined runs in the seventh inning had been scored. Scherzer was out after allowing a solo home run to Joc Pederson. It drifted over the left field wall, just his second opposite field home run of the season. Jansen was in. Now, there was Kershaw, out to the bullpen six hours after Roberts was adamant Kershaw would not be available to pitch.

Kershaw did not warm up to face Bryce Harper. Instead he stood watching from the bullpen, waiting for Murphy, the Nationals best hitter and a postseason hammer for two years running. After Jansen walked Werth, who joined Harper on the base paths, Roberts came out. A quick wiggle of his left hand told Kershaw it was time. Two pitches later, the drama broke. Murphy popped out to the second baseman.

“I got a pitch middle-in, it felt like, and he just beat me to the spot,” Murphy said. “I thought I probably could’ve cheated a little bit more right there. I leveraged the count in my favor, 1-0, and he beat me to the spot. It’s a bit frustrating right now.”

The misery engulfed third base coach Bob Henley afterward. He is an aggressive decision-maker; has been all season. So much so that players wore T-shirts with his likeness on the front and a slogan on the back: “Send ‘em one, send ‘em all, send ‘em short, send ‘em tall.” A bubbly Alabaman, Henley throws batting practice to the pitchers, works with the catchers, brightens moods. He turned and watched Ryan Zimmerman’s sixth-inning double speed into the left-field corner where it was picked up by Andrew Toles. Henley began to whirl his arm. Werth was coming hard from first base, cutting corners off the bags, heading toward home with his signature hair floating up from the back of his neck. Shortstop Corey Seager caught Toles’ rapid relay. He threw home. It wasn’t close. Werth was out by such a gaping margin that he did not slide. The game was 1-0, Nationals, at the time. They later lost by a run. Henley used one word multiple times in explaining it all.

“Heartbroken.”

It’s of note the Nationals had a runner on third with one out twice prior and failed to score. Whether Scherzer should have been on the mound in the seventh to allow a game-tying home run can be discussed. Why Dodgers menace Justin Turner was provided a right-handed pitcher to hit against, Shawn Kelley, instead of left-handed Sammy Solis, who was already in the game, can be debated. Turner is right-handed, so it seems counterintuitive to leave Solis in to face him. Trouble is, Turner hit .209 against left-handed pitchers this season. He took it to right-handed pitchers with a .305 average. Those numbers held when his triple off the center-field wall drove in two more runs.

Those are among the pressure points of the night. Chris Heisey’s pinch-hit home run in the seventh rebooted hope. Yet, the image of Werth having no chance to score on the play is a choice so vivid it will the “Do you remember?” part of the game years from now.

This is three times in five years the Nationals have been kicked out of the first round of the playoffs. Harper sat stunned at his locker. Werth walked around the clubhouse with his hands on his hips looking like a man trying to remember where he had put something, but unable to grasp the thought he wanted. Zimmerman spoke in his usual even tone, as did Murphy. They hugged each other, clubhouse attendants, the handful of people who make a season tick that the public never sees.

Above all the lockers was rolled up plastic. A shield against the sloppiness of possible celebration. Black nails held the plastic rolls over what had been the yard-wide homes of the Nationals since the April 7 home opener more than six months ago. Small white ties kept the plastic restrained. There was no reason to undo them. Again.

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