When the original Mets drafted Giants catcher Hobie Landrith to begin the expansion draft that created the team in the first place, manager Casey Stengel explained it by saying, “You have to have a catcher, or else you’ll have a lot of passed balls.”
I’d pay money to know what the Ol’ Perfesser was thinking while watching Game Five of the National League division series between the Nationals and the Cubs Thursday night, from wherever he was perched in the Elysian Fields of heaven. “Amazin’” might have been his most understated thought.
Once upon a time, a catcher’s equipment was known as “the tools of ignorance.” Oh, if only. If only Matt Wieters could ignore what happened to him, to Max Scherzer of all people, and to his Nats in the top of the fifth Thursday night.
And oh, if only the Nats can shake off the sense that they’re least safe when they get early leads in winner-take-all division series games. When Bryce Harper swung and missed on a full count service from Wade Davis to end it—two innings after his bases-loaded sacrifice fly pulled the Nats back to within two—with the Cubs winning 9-8, it had to hurt worse than any other round-one exit the Nats have been handed before.
Watching Nats closer Sean Doolittle carve the Cubs up in the top of the ninth, with two hard swinging strikeouts (Jason Heyward, Javier Baez) and a hard line out to left (late-game insertion Leonys Martin), you felt sorry for him. It should have been the half inning to end the game. It wasn’t. And it wasn’t even close to his fault.
The Cubs don’t care how they win as long as they do win. If it takes the other guys’ catcher to lose his grip, they’ll take it. If it takes the other guys’ right fielder stumbling to misplay what becomes an RBI double for an insurance run, they’ll take it. If it takes asking their closer for a seven-out save, and him dodging bullets to get it, they’ll take it.
If it takes coming into the postseason as the lower seed and surviving a game that was The Comedy of Errors on Chiller Theatre, they’ll take it. Cub history prior to 2016—some of which involved Nats manager Dusty Baker when he managed the Cubs—has only too many instances of the Cubs being where the Nats were Thursday night.
They may sympathise with the Nats. But only a little. They don’t exactly mind that the Nats—who’ve been pushed out of the postseason without a National League Championship Series on their jackets four times in six tries now—are beginning to look as star-crossed and calamity-prone as too many generations of Cubs past.
The early 6-0 lead they blew in Game Five, 2012 NLDS, by trying to throw strikeouts on each pitch or hit six-run homers with each swing, enabling a Cardinals comeback. Then-manager Matt Williams lifting Jordan Zimmermann an out away from finishing a shutout and mal-managing his Game Four bullpen in the 2014 NLDS, enabling a Giants trip to the NLCS. The last two innings against the Dodgers in last year’s NLDS.
“It was a series of bad events,” Baker said after Thursday night’s game. That was like saying World War II was a series of back-fence arguments between neighbours. “It really hurts, you know, to lose like that, especially after what we went through all year long, and that was tough.”
Thursday night, the Nats powered themselves to a 4-1 lead after two against the Cubs. They made it look as if the invitations to Nationals Park should have read, “We request the honour of your presence. We’re having a blast.” By the time the bottom of the ninth rolled around, you’d have thought the invitations read, “We request the honour of your presence. Big October out giveaway.”
On a night Nats starter Gio Gonzalez could be described most politely as shaky, and Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks was very hittable, the Nats figured they could still put it in the bank when they brought Game Three pitching hero Max Scherzer in to pitch the top of the fifth. So did their fans when Scherzer rid himself of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo to open.
Then Cubs catcher Willson Contreras beat out an infield hit. Pinch hitter Ben Zobrist (for Albert Almora, Jr.) shot a single up the pipe to follow. And Addison Russell did the unthinkable and sent a two-run double off the left field wall—aided and abetted by Nats left fielder Jayson Werth doing the more unthinkable and misjudging it completely.
Then Scherzer and the Nats decided it was worth putting Jason Heyward on to pitch to Javier Baez. And strike three shot past Wieters, a four-time All Star whose reputation includes one for solid hands and footwork behind the dish.
And Wieters retrieved the ball and threw to first to complete the strikeout, possibly aided and abetted by plate umpire Jerry Layne missing an interference call on Baez, whose swinging follow-through bumped Wieters on the helmet—meaning, by the rule book, a dead ball.
Except that Wieters’s throw sailed wildly past first base and into right field, letting Russell score the sixth Cub run, before pinch-hitter Tommy LaStella reached on—you guessed it—catcher’s interference.
With the bases thus loaded, Scherzer plunked Jon Jay, when he probably really wanted to knock the mask off the hapless Wieters for really getting him into this toxic waste. And suddenly it was 7-4, Cubs. Somehow, Scherzer managed to put an end to the disaster by getting Bryant to pop out to shortstop, where the Cub first baseman had grounded out to open the inning. Or maybe Bryant thought he was showing mercy.
Imagine reading the papers and seeing, “The Cubs batted around on reliever Max Scherzer.” Washington probably couldn’t, either.
Scherzer didn’t quite put an end to the Nats’ misery. They still had five more innings to play. And suddenly the leadoff homer Daniel Murphy hit in the second, and the three-run bomb Michael A. Taylor (he of the Game Four grand salami) hit two batters later, seemed almost as distant a Washington memory as the city’s last and only World Series conquest . . . during the Coolidge Administration.
Especially when Jayson Werth, the Nats’ left fielder, couldn’t field Addison Russell’s second double of the night, sending home mid-game insertion Ben Zobrist with the eighth Cub run. Especially with the Nats giving away outs in the field and on the bases like politicians dispensing favours leading up to election time.
Surrealistically, Contreras tried to return the favour in the bottom of the sixth, when he couldn’t stop Cub reliever Mike Montgomery’s wild pitch, allowing Werth to score, before Murphy doubled home Harper to close the deficit to 8-6. All things considered, the Cubs could afford to be generous. But only a little.
Once upon a time, the saying went, “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” Once upon a time, too, believe it or not, the 1924 Senators won the city’s only World Series triumph in big part because of . . . a catcher’s mishap.
In Game Seven, in the bottom of the twelfth, New York Giants catcher Hank Gowdy stepped in and tripped over his own discarded mask trying for the Senators’ Muddy Ruel’s foul pop. Ruel promptly doubled to left. Walter Johnson (yes, children, that Walter Johnson) reached immediately behind him on an error. Then Earl McNeely’s grounder to third took a bizarre hop over the head of Giants third baseman Fred Lindstrom, and Ruel plowed home with the Series-winning run.
That was the last century. This is the 21st Century. Where a reserve Nats catcher who wasn’t accustomed to reaching base this series, if not this season, made it first and second with two outs in the bottom of the eighth, and got picked off ignominiously, if closely enough . . . after a review was called following the initial safe call as Jose Lobaton scrambled back to first.
Even Cub first baseman Anthony Rizzo wasn’t sure in the moment that he’d gotten the tag on the hapless Lobaton in time—before Davis, half gassed, went out and exterminates what was left of the Nats in the bottom of the ninth.
This was one night Baker made no grievously wrong moves. Maybe he left Gonzalez in a couple of hitters too long on a night Gonzalez didn’t have his prime stuff working, but there wasn’t anything wrong with trying to get to the fifth inning with his starter this time around.
He had every right to expect Scherzer to give him three more innings and get the game to Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle. He didn’t bargain on
OK, he probably should have pinch hit for Wieters in the bottom of the fifth with Murphy aboard on a leadoff walk. For all the good it might have done him. When Baker did pinch hit Adam Lind for Madson in the eighth, with two on and nobody out, he managed good but boy did Lind play bad, as Rocky Bridges would have said. Lind dialed Area Code 5-6-3 on the first pitch. They ought to confiscate his smartphone.
The way this night was going, Baker could have had Goose Goslin or Sam Rice available and they might have dialed the same area code.
“Back and forth, that’s some fun baseball right there,” said Harper after the game. The audience in Nationals Park got the best absurdist theater of the year in a city to which absurdist theater is a way of life. The Cubs got the trip to the NLCS.
The deeper went the game, the emptier went the Cubs bullpen, the more Cubs manager Joe Maddon looked as though he’d need a doctor. Or, a tranquiliser. Baker should only have been that lucky. These Nats don’t need a mere doctor. To get over this one, Baker and his players may need neurosurgery.