Max Scherzer emerged from the bullpen to protect a lead, and Bryce Harper batted with the bases loaded. Again and again, the Nationals had the defending World Series champions on the ropes.
For Washington's tortured fans, it was all just another setup for a crushing playoff defeat.
Scherzer allowed four runs in an exasperating inning of relief, and the Nationals' repeated attempts to rally came up maddeningly short in a 9-8 loss early Friday morning to the Chicago Cubs in Game 5 of their NL Division Series.
Scherzer called it a "gut punch'' - and a feeling all too familiar. Washington was eliminated in the NLDS for the fourth time in six years, including a trio of Game 5 losses at home. The Nationals haven't won a playoff series since moving to the nation's capital from Montreal in 2005.
"Here we are in Game 5, play our hearts out, everybody lays it on the line, everybody's fighting to do everything they can and we lose a nail-biter of a game again,'' Scherzer said. "This game's cruel sometimes just the way things can happen. What a series.''
This chapter of postseason disappointment may be the wildest yet. There was Jayson Werth whiffing on a line drive to left field, pinch-hitter Adam Lind grounding into a comeback-killing double play and backup catcher Jose Lobaton getting picked off first base to erase another golden chance.
"It was just a series of bad events,'' manager Dusty Baker said. "It really hurts to lose like that.''
Michael A. Taylor had a three-run homer and an RBI single after helping the NL East champions stay alive with a grand slam in Game 4. But the Nationals couldn't overcome a crippling sequence during Chicago's four-run fifth.
Scherzer entered to a roar from the sellout crowd of 43,989, manager Dusty Baker letting him loose with a 4-3 lead for his first relief appearance since the 2013 playoffs, when he was with the Detroit Tigers.
Nationals Park rocked as Scherzer got two quick outs, and then it all fell apart. Scherzer allowed three straight hits, the last a two-run double by Addison Russell, and Chicago went ahead 5-4.
After an intentional walk to Jason Heyward, Scherzer struck out Javier Baez, but catcher Matt Wieters dropped the pitch. The ball rolled away, and then Wieters threw it into right field, allowing Russell to score.
Baez's bat struck Wieters in the side of the mask on strike three, and the catcher argued unsuccessfully for interference to be called. Major League Baseball rules state that if, in the umpire's judgment, a catcher is struck on a backswing before he secures the ball, it should be called a strike and the play ruled dead.
Plate umpire Jerry Layne said that because the ball was already past Wieters, Baez's bat did not impede his ability to make a play.
"The graze of the helmet didn't have anything to do, in my judgment, with anything at all, with that particular play,'' Layne said.
Wieters was called for catcher's interference on the next at-bat, and then Scherzer plunked Jon Jay to force home a run.
Wieters called it one of the worst defensive games of his career, and those mistakes cost Scherzer dearly.
"You can execute pitches and sometimes that's not enough,'' said Scherzer, who was charged with two earned runs.
Chicago took a 7-4 lead and narrowly staved off Washington's rallies the rest of the way, including a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the seventh when the Nationals got just one run, on Harper's sacrifice fly.
This elimination-game loss was another stunner a year after a topsy-turvy Game 5 against the Los Angeles Dodgers that included third base coach Bob Henley sending Werth into a sure out at home and ace Clayton Kershaw picking up the save. Scherzer called that "the craziest game'' he had ever been a part of.
Craziest to that point. Even after Scherzer's 28-pitch maelstrom, the Cubs scored again when Werth slid and missed a line drive in left and got their ninth run in the seventh on an RBI groundout.
"I can probably count on one hand how many balls I've had go in the lights on me in seven years,'' Werth said, setting his beer bottle down in the locker next to his for perhaps his final media scrum as a National.
"For that to happen tonight, it feels like if it could go wrong, it did.''
The Nationals chipped away and got it to 9-8 in the eighth. Cubs closer Wade Davis stumbled while chasing a seven-out save, but Lind grounded into a double play in the eighth, and then Lobaton was backpicked by Contreras at first base to end a two-on threat. Originally called safe, Lobaton was ruled out after a Cubs challenge when his right foot momentarily slid off the base.
"I thought I was safe for sure until I saw the replay,'' Lobaton said. "I didn't know that my foot came off.''
Harper said he thought Lobaton was out right away. The 2015 NL MVP got a final chance to keep the season alive, but he went down swinging for the final out.
"That's what you live for: Go out there and battle your tail off against a great Cubs team and do all the things you could to put your heart and soul into a game,'' Harper said. "Just came up short.''
Players said they felt in the dugout like a comeback was inevitable until Harper struck out. It was a familiar, uncomfortable feeling.
"It really felt like it was only a matter of time before one of those breaks, one of those weird plays was going to go our way, we were going to be able to break it open and get over that hump,'' closer Sean Doolittle said. "We just couldn't get it done.''