Ten minutes was all it took for the Nationals' fate to change
That’s it. Ten minutes.
It was 10 minutes that decided whether the history of sports in Washington would change.
It was 10 minutes that decided whether a Washington baseball team would win a postseason series for the first time since 1924.
It was 10 minutes that decided if manager Dusty Baker’s legacy would change — if finally, after going 0 for 8 in deciding playoff games, he would change that.
That’s it. Game 5 of the National League Division Series Thursday night into Friday morning at Nationals Park lasted 4:32. But the 4-3 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the deciding game of the series came down to 10 minutes between the bottom of the sixth inning and the top of the seventh.
Everything changed in those 10 minutes. Yet everything remained the same.
With Washington clinging to a 1-0 lead on the arm of ace Max Scherzer, Jayson Werth led off the bottom of the sixth inning by working out a walk after going 0-2 in the count to Julio Urias. Daniel Murphy, the hitting magician, came up to the plate as the crowd chanted, “MVP, MVP,” and he nearly answered their pleas by driving a ball to right that almost got over the head of Josh Reddick, but not quite, as Reddick snared it.
Then Anthony Rendon — he of the 22-men-left-on-base-division-series-record Rendons — popped up to first for the second out. Ryan Zimmerman, who before the game reflected on what has seen here since he arrived as a September rookie call-up in 2005 — doubled to left.
It wasn’t a deep shot, and Andrew Toles ran it down. But as Werth got to third, he didn’t stop. Every one of the nearly 44,000 people in the stands at Nationals Park — who stayed for the end, ignoring the Metro shutdown — probably expected Werth to stop.
Bob Henley didn’t.
Bob Henley is the third base coach for the Washington Nationals. From all accounts he is a nice man, but Washington sports fans have a right to know a little bit about their latest tormentor.
His full name is Robert Clifton Henley. He was born Jan. 30, 1973 in Mobile, Alabama. He was drafted by this franchise when it was known as the Montreal Expos in the 26th round in 1991 as a catcher, and he has been with the organization since, 13 years as a coach and the last three on the Nationals major league staff. He had been fired at the end of last year along with manager Matt Williams and the rest of his staff, but was rehired to work under Baker.
And on Thursday night, Oct. 13, 2016, he waved Jayson Werth home. The ball had been waiting in the glove of Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal for quite some time when Werth finally reached home plate to be tagged out to end the inning.
As quick as it took for the Dodgers to come off the field and the Nationals to take the field, Joc Pederson led off for Los Angeles by sending the first pitch from Scherzer over the left field wall for a solo home run to tie the game 1-1. Baker brought Marc Rzepczynski in, starting a series of pinch-hitting and pitching changes, but all you need to know is this — the Dodgers scored three more runs and led 4-1 by the end of the inning.
Washington showed some fight — scoring two in the bottom of the eighth with a two-run pinch-hit home run by Chris Heisey to cut the Los Angeles lead to 4-3. But that is where it stayed when Clayton Kershaw — yes, that’s right — came in with one out in the bottom of the ninth, after closer Kenley Jansen, who had come into the game in the bottom of the seventh, walked Bryce Harper and Werth, to get Murphy to pop up second. Wilmer Difo — who Baker didn’t know was on the team in the spring — pinch hit and struck out to end the 2016 season for the Washington Nationals.
Baker did his best to defend Henley. “Well, he’s aggressive and there’s two outs, and with the hitters we had coming up after he feels terrible about that because it didn’t work,” he said. “But Toles got to the ball very quickly, got rid of it, and you know, did what he was supposed to do, hit the cut-off man.”
Henley, you know, presumably had a view of all of this.
“But you know that wasn’t what lost the game, really,” Baker said. “We had some chances with runners on third, less than two outs. That was kind of the story of the year. We didn’t get them home.”
This game changed, though, when Henley told Werth that it was OK to go home — just like Game 2 changed when Jose Lobaton hit his three-run home run. The Dodgers had other chances in that game, but it changed on the Lobaton home run.
History changes in moments like those. Yet in Washington — where a team has not played in any sort of league semifinals since 1998 — they remain the same.
This outcome was the same, as it was in 2014, as it was in 2012. Three different managers — Davey Johnson, Williams, Baker. Three different aces — Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Scherzer. Three exits in the National League Division Series.
Washington won 98 games in 2012, more than any team in baseball. They won 96 games in 2014, tied for second most in all of baseball. And this year the Nationals won 95 games, again tied for second-most wins in both leagues.
Yet in any of those years, they couldn’t win three out of five games in October. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. It is just the way it is.
You can have your Cy Young candidate pitcher on the mound with a 1-0 lead going against a series of arms that won’t be winning any awards on the other side, and in 10 minutes, you can lose it all.
And, while the Nationals were going down in defeat, the Washington Capitals opened their season with 3-2 loss to the team that eliminated them in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in May, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The circle of life continues.