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Cubs outlast Nationals 9-8 in wild NLDS Game 5, advance to NLCS to face Dodgers

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The Cubs did just enough right to win NLDS Game 5 at Nationals Park on Thursday evening, defeating the Nationals 9-8 and advancing to the NLCS to face the Dodgers.

There was a lot of scoring in this one, so I’ll spare you the intricate play-by-play for each event. The Cubs opened the scoring in the top of the first against Nats starter Gio Gonzalez, as Anthony Rizzo brought home a run with a ground out. The Nationals answered in the bottom of the second, scoring four runs: one on a Daniel Murphy home run to right field and another three on Michael Taylor‘s homer to left, both off of Kyle Hendricks.

The Cubs cut the deficit by two in the top of the third inning, scoring a run on an Addison Russell ground out and on a wild pitch uncorked by Gonzalez.

Max Scherzer entered the game in relief in the fifth inning and it did not go well. Scherzer yielded two two-out singles, then a two-run double to Russell to give the Cubs a 5-4 lead, then intentionally walked Jason Heyward, then saw Javier Baez reach on a dropped third strike. Catcher Matt Wieters threw the ball wide of first base, skipping into right field, so Russell scored to make it 6-4. Tommy La Stella reached when Wieters interfered with his swing to load the bases. Scherzer hit Jon Jay with a pitch, forcing in a run to make it 7-4.

Russell knocked in another run in the top of the sixth with a double against Brandon Kintzler. The Nationals finally answered, scoring two runs in the bottom of the sixth. Mike Montgomery walked Ryan Zimmerman but ball four was a wild pitch, allowing a run to score. Murphy then doubled to left field to plate one more run, reducing the Nationals’ deficit to 8-6.

Kris Bryant pushed across one more run for the Cubs in the top of the seventh with an RBI ground out. It was controversial as Jay slid into Murphy at second base on a double play attempt, which Nationals manager Dusty Baker thought violated the “Chase Utley rule.” But after a replay review, the ruling on the field was upheld, giving the Cubs their ninth run.

The Nationals loaded the bases with one out, bringing Bryce Harper to the plate in the bottom of the seventh against Jose Quintana. Harper, though, could only muster a sacrifice fly to center field, making it a 9-7 game. Zimmerman struck out against Wade Davis to end the frame.

Davis remained in the game for the eighth but he couldn’t find the strike zone. He threw seven straight balls and ended up walking the first two batters he faced. He was bailed out, it seemed, when pinch-hitter Adam Lind swung at the first pitch and grounded into a 6-4-3 double play. Taylor, though, kept the rally alive, ripping a single up the middle to bring in a run for a 9-8 score. Jose Lobaton kept the line moving with a single up the middle, but then he made perhaps the costliest mistake of his career. After Davis threw a ball to Trea Turner, catcher Contreras snap threw to first base. Rizzo applied the tag on Lobaton, who slid back into the first base bag. He was initially ruled safe, but his foot popped up slightly given his momentum when Rizzo still had his glove on him. After replay review, Lobaton was ruled out and the Nationals’ rally ended.

Davis collected himself in the bottom of the ninth, getting Turner to fly out. He then struck out Werth and Harper to end the game and send the Cubs to the NLCS to face the Dodgers. Another tough exit from the playoffs for the Nationals.

The NLCS begins on Saturday at 8 PM ET. The Dodgers will send Clayton Kershaw to the hill, as expected. We’ll have to see how the Cubs configure their rotation.

Nationals’ starting pitching carrying them into World Series

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In my postseason preview at the end of September, I listed the Nationals’ starting rotation as a strength and their bullpen as a weakness. Anyone who had followed the club this season could have told you that. Even the Nats are aware of it as manager Dave Martinez has leaned on his rotation to hide his sometimes unreliable ‘pen.

In Game 1 of the NLDS against the Dodgers, Martinez was burned by his bullpen as Tanner Rainey, Fernando Rodney, and Hunter Strickland combined to allow six base runners and four runs. Martinez used ace Max Scherzer in relief in Game 2, sandwiched by Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson. Starter Patrick Corbin pitched in relief in Game 3 and it backfired, but the bullpen after Corbin continued to allow more runs — three officially, but Wander Suero allowed two inherited runners to score on a three-run homer by Max Muncy. Martinez only had to rely on Doolittle and Hudson in Game 4 and he again went to Corbin in relief in Game 5.

The strategy was clear: use the actual bullpen as little as possible. If Martinez absolutely has to, Doolittle and Hudson get top priory by a country mile, followed by a starter, then the rest of the bullpen.

Thankfully for Martinez and the Nationals, the starting pitching has done yeoman’s work in the NLCS, jumping out to a three games to none series lead over the Cardinals. Aníbal Sánchez famously brought a no-hit bid into the eighth inning of Game 1, finally relenting a two-out single to José Martínez before his night was over. Doolittle got the final four outs in the 2-0 win. Max Scherzer flirted with a no-hitter in his Game 2 start as well, losing it when Paul Goldschmidt led off the seventh with a single. He was erased on an inning-ending double play. Doolittle, Corbin, and Hudson got the final six outs in the 3-1 victory.

It was more of the same in Game 3. While Stephen Strasburg didn’t flirt with a no-hitter, he was dominant over seven innings, yielding one unearned run on seven hits with no walks and 12 strikeouts. The Nats’ offense woke up, amassing eight runs through seven innings which allowed Martinez to give his main relief guys a night off. Rodney and Rainey each pitched a perfect inning of relief with two strikeouts in low-leverage situations, their first appearances in the NLCS.

The Nationals starting pitching has been outstanding by itself, but it has also had the secondary effect of allowing Martinez to hide his team’s biggest weakness. Now Martinez just has to hope for more of the same for one more game, then at least four more in the World Series.