But the Nationals did not go down without a fight. After squandering the lead in the fifth inning, the Nationals kept injecting tension and hope by grinding through the Cubs’ shaky bullpen.
It was not until Cubs closer Wade Davis, called upon for a career-high seven-out save, struck out Bryce Harper that the four-hour 37-minute marathon ended.
For the fourth time in six years, which included three do-or-die Game 5s, the Nationals were sent home for the off-season to dwell on questions about their inability to perform in October. Since 2012, they have the second-most regular season wins in baseball and four division titles, but they have yet to win a playoff series.
The Cubs, in contrast, advanced to face the Los Angeles Dodgers in a best-of-seven N.L. Championship Series that begins on Saturday. After ending their 108-year title drought last year, the Cubs were a weaker team this season. But they overcame their faults and Manager Joe Maddon cobbled together a bullpen Thursday that helped carry the team to the N.L.C.S. for the third consecutive season.
Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks, who was brilliant in Game 1, allowed four runs in four innings. Maddon played with fire by leaving Hendricks in the game as long as he did, but the Cubs battled back from an early deficit and capitalized on the Nationals’ many mistakes.
While the Cubs had been steeled by their playoff run last fall, many of the Nationals players were looking for redemption on Thursday. Five years ago, Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez helped squander a six-run lead in Game 5 against the Cardinals. But he did little to erase the pain of that memory.
When the Cubs scored the first run of the game in the first inning, the feeling of dread was most likely inescapable for Nationals fans. Gonzalez was wild from the start. Jon Jay doubled, moved to third on a wild pitch by Gonzalez, and then scored on a groundout by Anthony Rizzo.
But the Nationals soon leveled things. Quiet all series, Daniel Murphy tied the score with a solo home run off Hendricks in the second inning. Following singles by Anthony Rendon and Matt Wieters, Michael A. Taylor slammed a three-run shot, a day after hitting a decisive grand slam.
But Gonzalez nearly squandered that lead in the next frame. He loaded the bases, coughing up a double to Kris Bryant and two walks. Addison Russell drove in a run with a groundout, and then Gonzalez allowed another with a wild pitch that scored Willson Contreras.
That left the Nationals with a one-run lead, which was wiped out in the game-changing fifth. After Gonzalez lasted only three innings, Nationals Manager Dusty Baker used reliever Matt Albers for one inning. And for the fifth, he brought in Scherzer with the expectation that he might be able to go two innings.
Scherzer tore through Bryant and Rizzo with ease. Despite firing adrenaline-fueled 98-mile-per hour fastballs, he was hittable. Contreras and pinch-hitter Ben Zobrist, a postseason hero for the Cubs last year, singled. Then Russell hit a ball down the third-base line, past the diving Rendon, for a go-ahead two-run double.
The inning then descended into madness. Scherzer struck out Javier Baez, which would have been the third out, but the ball got through the legs of Wieters, the catcher. Baez reached on a passed ball, and Russell scored on Wieters’s errant throw past first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and his backup, Murphy, the second baseman.
The next batter, Tommy La Stella, reached on what was ruled catcher interference. Then the Cubs took a 7-4 lead when Scherzer hit the next batter, Jay, on the knee with the bases loaded.
Scherzer finally escaped the inning after 28 pitches, but the damage was done. Baker made the right move, bringing in his best pitcher who started on Monday, yet the results did not work.
The Cubs extended their lead to 8-4 in the sixth when Nationals left fielder Jayson Werth missed a line drive hit by Russell. The Nationals roused their home crowd in the bottom of the inning with two runs off Cubs relievers Pedro Strop and Mike Montgomery.
The Cubs added a run in the top of the seventh when Kyle Schwarber scored on a force-out, but given the shaky state of the Cubs bullpen, a three-run lead was not reassuring. Yet Maddon leaned on setup man Carl Edwards Jr. and Davis, both of whom had sputtered these playoffs.
When Edwards walked Taylor to start the seventh inning, Maddon had seen enough, pulling the plug after his reliever had faced just one batter. Maddon brought in Jose Quintana, a starter pitching in relief. Quintana gave up a run on a sacrifice fly but got two outs.
With few reliable options left in the bullpen, Maddon called on Davis. It became a one-run game in the eighth inning after Davis gave up a run-scoring single to Taylor. He was aided by replay review, when Jose Lobaton was called out on a pickoff at first base.
Then, with whatever he had left, Davis mustered enough guile to get the final three outs.