Long after this 2017 NLDS is over, Game 5 (GameTracker) will be remembered as much for between the Nationals and Cubs as it will for controversy. A possible missed call swung the game in favor of the Chicago Cubs in the fifth inning and in the eighth inning also went against the Nationals.
The fifth inning in particular involved one of the most remarkable sequences in recent postseason memory -- and perhaps a missed call that could be remembered for a long time.
The biggest play of the inning, and perhaps the series, occurred when Max Scherzer, on in relief, schooled Javier Baez and struck him for what should have been the end of the inning, except the strike three ball got by Matt Wieters and rolled to the backstop. Not only Baez beat the throw to first base, the throw went into shallow right field. Russell scored from second on the play to give the Cubs a 6-4 lead. But Baez clearly hit Wieters in the side of the helmet/ and facemask with his backswing and that is an important point of contention. We'll explain why below as we go through the batter-by-batter sequence of the inning.
Neither Gio Gonzalez nor Kyle Hendricks, the two starting pitchers, performed all that well. They were both out of the game by the fifth inning. The Nationals built an early 4-1 lead on home runs from Daniel Murphy and Michael Taylor, though the Cubs battled back to make it 4-3.
The Nationals went to staff ace Max Scherzer, who threw 98 pitches and started Game Three on Monday, out of the bullpen in that fifth inning. The hope was he'd throw two innings to hand the lead over to Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson, and Sean Doolittle. Instead, the fifth inning unraveled with two outs.
Here's how the inning went down:
Bryant grounds out to short
Scherzer started the inning with a quick ground out that was close to routine. The Nationals had the infield shifted toward the left side against Kris Bryant, so Trea Turner had to move to his left a bit to make the play. No big deal. A pretty standard ground out for the first out.
Rizzo lines out to center
Off the bat, I thought this ball had a chance to get out. Anthony Rizzo lined a rocket to dead center field that just died and was caught with ease by Michael Taylor. Must've had too much topspin. The ball left Rizzo's bat at 99.2 mph with a launch angle of 24 degrees. Similar batted balls went for a hit 54 percent of the time in 2017. Instead, this was the second out.
Contreras reaches on an infield single
The beginning of the meltdown. Willson Contreras ripped a hard-hit ground ball back up the middle that Turner snagged on the dive, but by time he got upright and threw the ball to first, Contreras was safe. A more veteran catcher with a couple thousand innings on his legs might not have beaten that play out. The youthful Contreras made it with ease. A good play by Turner, it was. He just couldn't get the ball to first base in time once he dove.
Zobrist singles to left
Up to this point, Ben Zobrist's bloop single to left was the softest hit ball of the inning. It had an exit velocity of 71.8 mph. Zobrist dunked it into shallow left and suddenly the Cubs had two on with two outs. Scherzer got two quick outs and then two runners reached base. The tying run was in scoring position.
Russell doubles down the left field line
In the blink of an eye, the Cubs turned a 4-3 deficit into a 5-4 lead. Addison Russell pulled his hands in and yanked a ball down the third base line, just out of the reach of a diving Anthony Rendon at third, and into left field for a two-run single The runners were going on contact with two outs, allowing Zobrist to score from first. Here's the play:
Unexpected! Scherzer came out of the bullpen like a madman, stomping around the mound and all that, then the Cubs touched him up for a two-out rally and two runs.
Heyward intentionally walked
But wait! The rally did not end there. Scherzer fell behind in the count 2-0 on Jason Heyward, so the Nationals decided to put him on base and start the next batter with a fresh count. Heyward, a career .165/.216/.266 hitter in the postseason, was gifted a free base. That would come back to bite the Nationals
CONTROVERSY: Baez reaches on strikeout/passed ball
As mentioned above, this was the biggest play of the inning. Scherzer fooled Javier Baez and struck him out to end the inning, except the strike three ball got by Matt Wieters and rolled to the backstop. Baez beat the throw to first base and when the throw went into shallow right field, he advanced to second. Russell scored from second on the play to give the Cubs a 6-4 lead.
Here is the strike three pitch. Pay special attention to the backswing:
Baez clearly hit Wieters in the side of the helmet/facemask with his backswing. According to Rule 6.03, when the catcher is hit by the backswing, the strike is called and the ball is declared dead. That's to make sure the play doesn't continue if the catcher gets hurt. Here's the rule:
Baez, very clearly, hit Wieters with his backswing. Not intentionally, of course, but it happened. He hit him. And the play continued. Baez reached base and a run scored, so it was a pretty significant play.
As the rule reads, that should've been strike three to Baez and the ball declared dead. The inning should have been over with the Cubs leading 5-4. That is much, much different than what actually happened. Backswings are not reviewable, however, so the play stood. The home plate umpire presumably did not see the backswing hitter Wieters. The Cubs took a 6-4 lead.
La Stella reaches on catcher interference
Because the inning wasn't weird enough, pinch-hitter Tommy La Stella then reached base on a catcher interference. His swing hit Wieters in the glove, which means the batter is awarded first base. It doesn't happen often -- at least not to players other than all-time catcher interference leader Jacoby Ellsbury -- but it does happen.
Jay hit by pitch
The Baez strikeout/passed ball and La Stella hit-by-pitch loaded the bases. Scherzer then hit Jon Jay in the shin with a breaking ball to force in a run. The inning should've been over! Baez should've been ruled out after hitting Wieters with the backswing. Instead, the inning continued and the Cubs scored another run with Jay was hit by a pitch to force in a run, giving Chicago a 7-4 lead. Wild.
Bryant pops up to shortstop
At long last, the inning ending with a routine pop-up to shortstop. No adventure here. Bryant made two of Chicago's three outs in the inning.
So, just to recap, six consecutive Cubs batters reached base with two outs to score runs. At one point four consecutive runners reached on an intentional walk, a strikeout/passed ball, a catcher interference, and a hit-by-pitch. That is some sequence, huh?
The big story here is, obviously, the Baez strikeout and the backswing hitting Wieters. Wieters did appeal to the umpires, though it seemed he was arguing Baez foul tipped the ball, which would've kept the at-bat alive rather than result in the run scoring. Turns out he was actually asking about taking the backswing to the helmet, which would've ended the inning. Either way, the missed call on the backswing appears to have cost the Nationals dearly. Two runs scored in the inning after that.