The cigars were ablaze in the clubhouse of the victors. The champagne was flowing. The blurred selfies were in progress.
The laughter was crackling too. The 277 minutes of the game that determined the Dodgers’ next opponent had less of a classic feel and more of a surreal feel, a festival of wackiness in prime time and beyond. This was sold as baseball at its highest level, and yet the evening had such a comic feel that the winning manager could only describe it by borrowing the name of a comic strip.
“Bizarro world,” said Joe Maddon of the Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs got seven outs from their best reliever. The Washington Nationals got three from their best starter, and the Cubs tagged Max Scherzer for four runs — in an inning so crazy that it was unprecedented in major league history.
Those were the runs that Nationals fans will rue all winter. Those were the runs that put the Cubs ahead for good, in a thrilling 9-8 victory in the decisive fifth game of the National League division series.
Bring on the rematch. For the second consecutive year, the Dodgers will play the Cubs in the league championship series, with the winner advancing to the World Series.
“They’ve been the best team since day one,” Cubs pitcher Jon Lester said. “The roles are reversed. We were that team last year. We moved on. They’re that team this year.
“Hopefully, our result is the same.”
When the series opens Saturday at Dodger Stadium, the rested Dodgers will start the pitcher commonly tagged as the best on the planet, Clayton Kershaw. The Cubs, well, who the hell knows?
The Cubs used their top four starters to close out the NLDS: Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester on Wednesday, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana on Thursday. Maddon said that John Lackey, who did not appear in the NLDS, was “definitely in the mix” for the Game 1 start in the NLCS. Quintana, who made 12 pitches on Thursday, could be in the mix as well.
The Cubs scored eight runs in the first four games of the series. They scored nine on Thursday: three on hits, three on ground balls, one on a wild pitch, one on a hit batter, one on a rare trifecta: a strikeout and passed ball and error, all wrapped into the same play.
“We only had one clean hit to drive in a run,” said Theo Epstein, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations. “We scored nine. We had to find a way to get 27 outs without throwing strikes.”
The Cubs used seven pitchers, each of whom issued at least one walk. They gave up nine walks in all, and 14 hits, and they made 191 pitches.
“Surreal,” Epstein said.
The Nationals gave up seven unanswered runs, but they still got the go-ahead run to the plate in three of the final four innings. Bryce Harper hit a sacrifice fly with the bases loaded in the seventh inning, their 32-year-old backup catcher got picked off to end the eighth inning, and Harper struck out to end the ninth, and the Nationals’ season.
“Just a gut punch,” Washington ace Max Scherzer said. “Again.”
For another year, at least, the Nationals will have to hear all about 1924. No Washington team has won a postseason series since then. Of greater relevance, the Nationals have been eliminated in the first round four times in the past seven years — three times in a full five-game series, including this year by the Cubs and last year by the Dodgers.
Manager Dusty Baker is unsigned for next season, and his biggest star offered no thoughts, supportive or otherwise.
“That decision is made up top,” Harper said. “I don’t want to comment on that.”
The Nationals had their $210-million ace, Scherzer, available for two innings on Thursday. They got one inning, an inning that will be replayed and rued as long as October remains such a fickle month in Washington baseball.
The inning was the fifth. The Nationals had a 4-3 lead. If they could get two clean innings from Scherzer, they could hand the lead to their late-inning relievers.
Scherzer retired the first two batters. Then came an infield single — on a fastball at 98.2 mph, the hardest Scherzer had thrown a pitch this season. Then came a bloop single. Two flukes, no real worries.
Addison Russell doubled sharply down the third-base line, scoring both runners, and the Cubs had a 5-4 lead.
What happened with the next four batters was a sequence that never had happened in any of the 2.7 million half-innings in major league history, according to Baseball Reference: intentional walk, strikeout/passed ball, hit by pitch, catcher’s interference.
The Cubs scored one on the strikeout when catcher Matt Wieters failed to catch strike three and then threw the ball into right field, and they scored another on the hit batter, because the bases were loaded.
“I’ve seen crazy stuff before,” Scherzer said. “Nothing like that.”
The Cubs thus led 7-4, and Scherzer had given up four runs in what turned out to be his one and only inning.
Maddon nearly mismanaged all of that lead away. He appeared to be holding back Quintana for the Dodgers in the hope what grew to an 8-4 lead would hold, but in the meantime the Nationals scored on three consecutive middle relievers, once on a walk in which Mike Montgomery threw ball four so poorly thrown that it was a wild pitch.
Maddon said he felt “very strongly” that the regular relievers were rested and should get “first crack” before Quintana. Maddon ended up committing the sin of rushing a starter into the middle of an inning, then using an erratic Quintana for two outs and calling on closer Wade Davis, with two out in the seventh inning.
The last time Davis got seven outs? Four years ago, against the Nationals, as a starter for the Kansas City Royals.
Epstein said he wondered whether Maddon might need to use Lackey by the time the ninth inning arrived.
Davis struck out Ryan Zimmerman to end the seventh. He walked the first two batters in the eighth inning, after which pinch-hitter Adam Lind rescued Davis by swinging at the first pitch and grounding into a double play. Michael A. Taylor singled home one run, cutting the Cubs lead to 9-8. Then Jose Lobaton rescued Davis by getting picked off first base, and Davis retired the Nationals in order in the ninth.
“That,” Lester said of Davis, “is a bad mother (expletive).”
Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs’ starter, was something of a forgotten man in the early morning Friday. He had pitched in the first four innings Thursday night, then endured the stress of watching the final five innings without any ability to control the outcome.
All he could do was watch. What he saw was so wild and crazy that, as he was drenched in champagne in the clubhouse, he could not pick which wild and crazy moment was his favorite.
“I don’t even know,” he said. “I’ve got to go back and watch it again.”
NATIONAL LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES
Game 1: Chicago Cubs at Dodgers, Saturday 5 p.m.
Game 2: Chicago Cubs at Dodgers, Sunday 4:30 p.m.
Game 3: Dodgers at Chicago Cubs, Tuesday, TBD
Game 4: Dodgers at Chicago Cubs, Wednesday, TBD
x-Game 5: Dodgers at Chicago Cubs, Oct. 19
x-Game 6: Chicago Cubs at Dodgers, Oct. 21
x-Game 7: Chicago Cubs at Dodgers, Oct. 22
Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin