Rocking the Bote

Max Scherzer slicing and dicing the Cubs with 11 strikeouts? Ryan Zimmerman knocking in two off old buddy Brandon Kintzler, after the Cubs put Bryce Harper on to load the pads in the top of the ninth, for a little overdue insurance? Pleasant memories, now.

A Cub rookie, on the roster with Kris Bryant down with a shoulder injury, ending the game with a grand slam against a shaky Ryan Madson for a 4-3 Cubs win to take two of three from the Nationals? With his team down to the final strike of a prospective 3-0 loss? The first such last-strike, game-winning bomb since 1936?

Nat fans pray it wasn't the coffin lid closing and awaiting the final nails to be hammered in. They pray the Nats aren't just awaiting the last rites now.

But for a team clawing to get every leg up they can get in the National League East, the Nats' Sunday night loss is going to sting. Deep. Not quite as deep as blowing Game Five of last year's division series to the Cubs was, but deep enough. You'd have believed Wrigley Field thought so, too, considering how nuts the place went from the moment Bote rounded first as his drive went out.

"Five minutes ago, I was sure Washington would reach October," tweeted Washington Post baseball writer Barry Svrluga. "Now I think there's no chance."

"That is an absolute dagger," tweeted Svrluga's colleague Chelsea Janes. "Two strikes. Two outs. Can't happen. Just a dagger."

What David Bote's career portends from here is anyone's guess, but what he did Sunday night, pinch hitting for Cubs reliever Justin Wilson with deuces wild (two balls, two strikes, two outs), has an excellent chance of lingering in the swelling pages of Nat calamities in the heat of the races and beyond. And maybe being the bomb of the season while he was at it.

"When I came over," Cubs starter Cole Hamels told ESPN, "[Bote] was the first player I saw. Just knowing the type of work he puts in, you have to give him a lot of respect and credit." If Bote's blast continues the Cubs' propulsion to the postseason and may have broken the Nats' shaky back once and for all for the season, they'll give him a lot more than respect and credit.

Scherzer and Hamels, a non-waiver trade deadline pickup for the Cubs, fought each other magnificently. For a short while you thought you were watching Juan Marichal versus Bob Gibson, or Tom Seaver versus Steve Carlton. A duel of the masters on a pleasant Sunday night in the Friendly Confines that threatened to end in a one-run, 1-0 game.

Hamels didn't strike out quite as many as Scherzer but he kept the Nats to a single hit in his seven innings while punching out nine. The bad news was, the hit came from Daniel Murphy in the second, setting up first and third, with Mark Reynolds sending Ryan Zimmerman home with a sacrifice fly.

The Nats stayed hitless until Trea Turner opened that two-run ninth with a triple off Kintzler, the former Nat bullpen bull purged to the Cubs after general manager Mike Rizzo decided Kintzler was the man who leaked to the press that the Nats' clubhouse was something of a ball of confusion.

It was the Nats' only non-waiver trade deadline move. And it almost paid off for the Nats more than the Cubs until, with closer Sean Doolittle still on the disabled list, manager Dave Martinez turned to Madson.

Ben Zobrist opened the bottom of the ninth grounding out to first but Jason Heyward beat out a grounder to second for a hit, his own afterburners-on running helping provoke the miscue. Then Madson plunked Albert Almora, Jr. and, after Kyle Schwarber fouled out, Madson plunked Willson Contreras — after Contreras fouled off three straight, yet — to load the pads.

Martinez never poked his nose out of his hole even after the second plunk. His options may have been limited thanks to Rizzo's I'll-show-you! purge of Kintzler and (hours after the non-waiver deadline) Shawn Kelley, but it's not as though there was nobody in the pen he could have had preparing from the moment Madson plunked Almora with a 3-0 lead on the line.

Up came Bote to hit for Wilson. On 2-2 Madson's fastball arrived on the floor of the strike zone. Bote was only too well prepared for it. "I got that pitch and I was like, just get it into the air," he said after the game. "Hit it as hard as I can to center field. That was the approach. And get underneath it." He may not necessarily have figured on hitting it enough to clear the center field wall, but clear it he did.

No player has erased a 3-0 deficit and ended a game with a grand slam since Cincinnati's Sammy Boyd did it in late May 1936 against the Pirates. Only one other pinch hitter has done it with a three-run deficit, and that was journeyman Roger Freed of the 1979 Cardinals, against Astros reliever Joe Sambito. Freed, too, was down to his and the Cardinals' final strike, this time in the bottom of the 11th, but after the Cardinals cracked a three-all tie in the top.

Hall of Famer Alan Trammell once ended a game with a salami when his Tigers were in the hole 6-3; Chris Hoiles of the 1988 Orioles ended a game with a salami when his club was down 13-10. And Boyd's 1936 blast came with nobody out.

Bote's blast meant that, little by little, the Nationals are beginning to look like the kind of star-crossed team the Cubs themselves were pre-2016. You can begin compiling a volume of back-breaking, heart-punching losses that turned their tides into the tidal waves that swallowed them alive. Sunday night's may or may not yet prove the biggest among such blows, which include:

* A 12-inning loss to the Padres in mid-September 2005, which got to the extras in the first place when San Diego shortstop Khalil Greene whacked a salami with two outs in the ninth, but Greene wasn't down to his and the Pads' final strike when he connected. From there the Nats lost three straight to drop out of the wild card race.

* An 8-7 loss to the Mets near the beginning of September 2015, when the Nats slapped Matt Harvey silly during his otherwise splendid season but the bullpen imploded, losing the strike zone completely starting with two out in the seventh, and the Mets finally leading for keeps when Kirk Nieuwenhuis homered solo off Jonathan Papelbon in the eighth. The following night, the Nats blew another late-game lead to the Mets, then lost their following two straight and, for all intent and purpose, their season.

These Cubs, like this year's Nats, have had to play while enduring a wrestling match with the disabled list. But these Cubs seem more likely than these Nats to survive with their heads in one piece and the postseason on their itinerary, and that's allowing for how comparatively modest the NL Central is this year.

How much more likely? In June, in a game featured on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, the Nats were in the hole to the upstart Phillies, 6-2, when they overthrew that deficit and won dramatically enough, 8-6. They thought that would help turn their season toward the express tracks. Instead, they lost eight of their next nine.

The Cubs aren't complaining. Bote's solid performance since his arrival from Iowa looks to give manager Joe Maddon a much-needed shot of pain relief, since Bote is multi-positional as a player and gives the skipper options for easing some of his veterans — like Schwarber and Zobrist, and even Anthony Rizzo — down the stretch and keeping them reasonably fresh.

Right now it's the Nats who need pain relief. And they're opening a four-game set with the Cardinals tonight. The Cardinals, whose purge of Mike Matheny and elevation (for now) of bench coach Mike Shildt has turned into the Cardinals going 16-9 since and winning five straight series.

Almost overnight, the Cardinals have gone from the walking wounded to right back into the postseason hunt. They're as far behind the Cubs as the Nats were behind the Braves until Sunday night, but the Nats pull into Busch Stadium with their tails between their legs and the Cardinals host them looking nothing like the fractured fairy tale they seemed before Matheny finally lost his clubhouse and his job.

"There are times when 'game' doesn't seem like the correct term for baseball," tweeted the nonpareil Thomas Boswell. "I'm going to an island in the middle of the ocean for a few days. I doubt anyone there has ever heard of the Nats."

Then, almost on a dime, Boswell turned around and tweeted,"On second thought, after coffee, I suspect that when I get back before Friday's game, we'll know a lot about how a make-'em or break 'em game turned out for these Nats. Seen it go both ways."

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