When third-base coach Bob Henley sent Jayson Werth home on a double down the left-field line, the Nationals seemed to be in control. Max Scherzer was dealing some of the finest stuff in the biggest start of his career, and Washington was nine outs from winning an NL Division Series.
Werth was out by 30 feet at the plate , Scherzer lost the lead on his next pitch and the decisive Game 5 unraveled as the Nationals lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers 4-3 Thursday night, their third first-round exit in the past five years.
Henley was "heartbroken" at his ill-advised decision, which cost the Nationals at least the chance at more runs in a game that came down to one.
"You live and die by those moments sometimes," Werth said. "If (shortstop Corey) Seager doesn't make a good throw, the ball kicks away or something like that, I score. That was tough. It was a tough play."
Players who have worn a shirt with Henley's picture and the phrase "Send 'em short, send 'em tall, send 'em one, send 'em all" were reluctant to pin the loss on a third-base coach when they went 1 for 10 with runners in scoring position and stranded 11. They credited Dodgers manager Dave Roberts for going to closer Kenley Jansen in the seventh for the longest outing of his major league career and for turning to ace Clayton Kershaw for a two-out save in the ninth , Kershaw's first since the Gulf Coast League in 2009.
But the game turned on left fielder Andrew Toles getting the ball to Seager, and the rookie making the throw home to catcher Yasmani Grandal. The air was sucked out of the sellout crowd of 43,936 that had made Nationals Park lively and loud for most of the evening.
"I think after the fact, hindsight, do I wish I could have it back? Well, yeah, sure," Henley said. "That's just human nature. But I've tried to be aggressive all year. It's our style of play. Does it hurt? Sure, it hurts. Anytime it doesn't work out and you feel like it might have cost us, of course I think it hurts."
Scherzer gave up a home run to Joc Pederson on his first pitch in the seventh and his 99th and last of the game. From that point manager Dusty Baker called on five relievers — Mark Rzepczynski, Blake Treinen, Sammy Solis, Shawn Kelley and Oliver Perez — to get three outs.
They eventually did so, but not before Carlos Ruiz drove in a run with a pinch-hit single off Solis and Justin Turner got two more home with a triple off Kelley, who suffered a severe injury on his subsequent pitch. Four runs by the Dodgers was too deep a hole for the Nationals to climb out of, even with a two-run, pinch-hit home run by Chris Heisey in the bottom of that seventh inning, a 66-minute extravaganza.
"You knew something one in a million was going to happen tonight," Scherzer said. "That was it. We weren't able to overcome that seventh inning."
As Werth described it, the wheels came off for a Nationals team that won 95 games and the NL East but is left to wonder how to come back from another gut punch of a playoff loss. In the aftermath of Game 5, the only consolation was that the Dodgers pulled out all the stops to win.
"It's the craziest game I've ever been a part of," Scherzer said. "We just didn't get it done. No one's a goat. No one made a crucial misplay. Everybody stepped up and did their game. We just didn't get that extra run."
That extra run could have come in the sixth had Werth not been thrown out at the plate, making Henley as much of the goat as Rzepcyznski, who got the loss, or any of the other relievers who struggled in the seventh. Baker said Henley's decision "wasn't what lost the game," and blamed the inability to get runners home.
Baker had his bags packed for Chicago and will now go home as the Dodgers face the Cubs in the NL Championship Series.
"I'm not ready for the season to end," Baker said. "Right now, everybody's kind of numb. Everybody's probably thinking about what we all could have done to change the outcome of the game."
Note: Kelley lost feeling in his fingers on his first pitch to Adrian Gonzalez in the seventh and immediately knew something was wrong. Baker said he was concerned about Kelly's long-term health because of his history of Tommy John Surgeries.
This story has been corrected to show the first name of the Nationals pitcher is Marc, not Mark Rzepcyznski.