Best second-half MLB teams of wild-card era

Whether it comes as a strong finish to an already dominant season or an amazing comeback, or it’s a newly emerged contender coming out of nowhere, there have been some remarkable finishes in the recent history of Major League Baseball. The wild-card era has ushered in far more opportunity for the postseason than ever before but also has raised the stakes within the pursuit.

With 2019’s pennant chase preparing to take shape, let’s take a look back some of the great finishes of baseball’s modern postseason era. 1 of 20

Seattle Mariners, 1995

After owning a 34-35 record at the All-Star break, the ’95 Mariners went from last to first place in the season’s second half. Ken Griffey Jr returned from a two-month absence to hit 10 home runs over the final two months, Edgar Martinez won the AL batting title and Randy Johnson won his first Cy Young Award. The Mariners bested the California Angels in a tie-breaker game to claim their first division title in franchise history. They reached the AL Championship Series, led by a legendary performance by Martinez against the Yankees in the ALDS. Seattle lost to Cleveland in the ALCS. 2 of 20

Chicago Cubs, 1998

While the summer of ’98 is best known for the home run race between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, it also is known for a tight NL playoff race. Sosa’s Cubs were one of the hottest teams in the game in the middle of the year before cooling off late. Meanwhile, Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants won nine of their last 12 games to catch the Cubs. The teams squared off in one-game playoff in which Bonds nearly hit a ninth-inning grand slam amid a Giants rally that fell short. The Cubs hung on to win, and they reached the playoffs for the first time in nine years. 3 of 20

New York Yankees, 1998

Not all memorable second-half performances included airtight races to the finish. Take the case of one of the greatest teams of all time, the ’98 Yankees. They were dominant from start to finish, winning 20 games in three separate months en route to a record 114-win season. They won the AL East by 22 games, with a breakout season for a young Derek Jeter, who hit .324 with 203 hits. They finished the season 66 games over .500 and set a record for most wins in a season, 125, after sweeping the San Diego Padres in the World Series. 4 of 20

Cleveland Indians, 2001

Aided by Minnesota’s huge collapse, the 2001 Indians staged an incredible comeback to claim an AL Central title. After reaching the All-Star break 23 games over .500, the Twins dropped 15 of their first 20 second-half contests, losing their grip on the division in the process. Meanwhile, behind a 49-homer season from Jim Thome, after being five games back at the All-Star break, the Indians finished six games ahead to win a sixth AL Central title since 1995, going 9-3 against Minnesota in the second half. 5 of 20

Oakland Athletics, 2001

In the wild-card era, no team has had more second-half success than the 2001 A’s. They set a 162-game schedule record by going 63-18 over their final 81 games, which included an incredible 29-4 record over the season’s final month. Led by their hallowed three-ace rotation of Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson, along with a string of incredible starts from Cory Lidle, who went 11-2 after the break, the A’s set a record for most wins by a wild-card team with 102. It also was the most wins by a second-place club, but they still finished 14 games behind the record-setting 2001 Seattle Mariners.

6 of 20

Seattle Mariners, 2001

Led by an incredible jolt of energy from MVP/Rookie of the Year Ichiro Suzuki, the 2001 Seattle Mariners tied the 1906 Chicago Cubs for the most regular-season wins in history with 116. The team never posted a double-digit loss total in any month and saved the best for last. From Sept. 1 through Oct. 7, they went 20-7, with a 4-3 loss on the season’s final day, costing them a chance to set the outright record for most wins in a season. 7 of 20

Oakland Athletics, 2002

For a second consecutive season, in 2002 Oakland channeled second-half magic, going 24-4 in August, a run that included the bulk of one of the greatest winning streaks in MLB history. Oakland went undefeated from Aug.13 to Sept. 4, embarking on an AL-record 20-game winning streak — which included walk-off wins during the final three victories of the streak. However, taking over the division outright required a second, shorter winning spree, when Oakland won nine of its final 11 games over divisional foes to win the AL West. It was a season that changed the way the sport is perceived and inspired the book and movie”‘Moneyball.” 8 of 20

Florida Marlins, 2003

The 2003 Marlins are the definition of a team that got hot at just the right time. After losing eight of their final nine games in August, Florida entered the final month 13 games back in the NL East and barely in control of a wild-card spot. However, its “team of destiny” run — which included an NLCS victory aided by the “Bartman Game” vs. the Cubs and a stunning upset of the New York Yankees in the World Series — got underway quickly in September. Jack McKeon’s club went 10-2 to start the month and won seven of its last nine to claim the NL wild-card spot. 9 of 20

Minnesota Twins, 2006

In 2006, the Twins pulled off the biggest second-half comeback of the last quarter century, erasing an 11-game deficit in the process. With Johan Santana embarking on a 13-0 second half en route to claiming AL Cy Young Award honors, Justin Morneau capturing AL MVP and Joe Mauer being crowned as AL batting champion, the Twins went 49-27 in the second half. This allowed them to track down the Detroit Tigers, who had posted the game’s top record in the first half but stumbled south of .500 following the All-Star break. Ultimately the Twins won the AL Central on the final day of the season. 10 of 20

Colorado Rockies, 2007

On Sept. 15, Colorado was barely above .500 and 6.5 games back of the San Diego Padres. However, the Rockies soon turned the booster jets on, winning 13 of their final 14 games to incredibly reach 90 wins and force a one-game playoff for the NL wild-card spot. The game featured another incredible comeback, as the Rockies rallied from a two-run deficit in the bottom of the 13th inning, capped by Matt Holliday scoring a still-disputed run on a Jamey Carroll sacrifice fly to send the Rockies back to the postseason for the first time in six seasons.

By: Matt Whitener

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MLB manager hot seat rankings

With the MLB regular season now about one-third of the way finished, we have a clearer picture of where each team stands. Some managers are already looking over their shoulders as a result of poor team performance. The following gallery is a ranking of MLB manager job security from one (least secure) to 30 (most secure).

1. Dave Martinez, Nationals

Brad Penner / USA Today Sports Images

While the Nats allowed Bryce Harper to walk in free agency, they entered the season with high expectations after signing Patrick Corbin. The roster has its share of stars with Corbin, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon, yet the team was almost out of the playoff race entering June. Washington was also the most disappointing team of 2018, at 82-80, and fired pitching coach Derek Lilliquist in early May. Frankly, it’s surprising Martinez has lasted this long in his second year.

2. Mickey Callaway, Mets

Noah K. Murray / USA Today Sports Images

The Mets sideshow continues. Callaway’s team finished with 77 wins in his first season but seemingly went all in this offseason by adding Edwin Diaz, Robinson Cano and Wilson Ramos and also allowed rookie Pete Alonso to stick on the roster out of spring training, thereby losing a year of team control. Yet, New York was below .500 entering June, and the pitching staff (Callaway’s area of expertise) has been disappointing.

3. Don Mattingly, Marlins

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It’s hard to believe him, but Marlins CEO Derek Jeter has insisted he expects the Marlins to win now. Jeter and Mattingly go way back to their days with the Yankees, but if Jeter truly practices what he preaches, Mattingly could be on the chopping block. To the surprise of no one (except maybe Jeter), the Marlins were 21-36 through June 3 and in contention for the worst record in baseball.

4. David Bell, Reds

Brad Penner / USA Today Sports Images

On one hand, the Reds ranked fourth in run differential in the NL through June 1. On the other hand, they were in last place at 27-32 with a lineup that has been a massive disappointment. The Reds’ pitching additions have worked out for the most part, particularly Sonny Gray and Tanner Roark, but the team had much higher expectations in Bell’s first season. It would be surprising if Cincinnati fired Bell in his first year but not unprecedented.

5. Ned Yost, Royals

Jim Cowsert / USA Today Sports Images

Yost gets some leeway for leading the Royals to two World Series, but the organization’s last winning season was its World Series championship 2015 season. K.C. won only 58 games last year and is well on its way to another embarrassing finish. The hiring of former Cardinals manager Mike Matheny as a front office assistant opened some eyes, and he would make sense as a replacement if the Royals move on from Yost, whose contract expires after this season.

6. Joe Maddon, Cubs

Jasen Vinlove / USA Today Sports Images

Maddon is in the last year of his contract with the Cubs, and the team has high expectations for 2019 despite making few offseason moves. While they have appeared in four straight playoffs, including their historic World Series win in 2016, their playoff success under Maddon has otherwise been fleeting. The NL Central has never been tougher during Maddon’s tenure than it is this season, but the team might decide to finally move on from him if it doesn’t go further in the playoffs this year.

7. Mike Shildt, Cardinals

Jim Cowsert / USA Today Sports Images

Shildt was the Cardinals savior last season, going 41-28 after the first-time manager was promoted following Mike Matheny’s firing. His start to this season has been more innocuous at 30-28, third place in the loaded NL Central. The Cardinals are desperate to make the playoffs after failing over the last three seasons and trading a significant package for Paul Goldschmidt in the offseason. Shildt can’t be faulted for the team’s starting pitching struggles, but ownership could make changes if the team disappoints again this year.

8. Brad Ausmus, Angels

Jesse Johnson / USA Today Sports Images

You’ve probably heard this one before, but the Angels have been plagued by multiple pitching injuries and have struggled to find hitters around Mike Trout this year. They had the same issue recently under Mike Scioscia, and Ausmus hasn’t been able to buck the trend despite being far more amenable to using openers and defensive shifts. Ausmus should get some slack, but it’s inexcusable for the team to not be competitive for so long. The Angels are at risk of finishing below .500 for the fourth straight season.

9. Clint Hurdle, Pirates

Philip G. Pavely / USA Today Sports Images

The Pirates remain within striking distance in the NL Central, though winning the division doesn’t truly look realistic with Jameson Taillon and Trevor Williams injured. Pittsburgh’s pitching staff has been far worse than expected as a result, and their negative-68 run differential through 58 games currently is the third-worst in the league. Hurdle has done a nice job considering the circumstances, but the team has finished above .500 only once in the last three years and could be in for a standings plunge if it doesn’t get healthy quickly.

10. Scott Servais, Mariners

Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA Today Sports Images

The M’s had a fire sale this offseason despite winning 89 games in 2018 but were able to get off to a hot start anyway. The Jay Bruce trade on June 2 likely was the first domino to fall in a continuing rebuild with the team standing 17 games out of first place. Servais hasn’t done anything wrong, but it remains to be seen whether the front office sees him as the right manager for what will soon become a younger roster.

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By: Seth Trachtman

Top storylines heading into MLB Opening Day

After a long winter, MLB Opening Day is upon us. Now that the games are here, our attention shifts from a brutally slow offseason to the season itself.

With the 2019 season set to begin, these are the top storylines to follow on Opening Day and the early months of the season.

Who will sign Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel?

Dallas Keuchel may not be the pitcher he once was, and Craig Kimbrel’s shaky postseason didn’t help his cause. Still, it’s ridiculous that these two remain unsigned. The addition of Keuchel would improve the top end of most rotations and there are few better closers in the game than Kimbrel.

How will the revamped Phillies look?

The Philadelphia Phillies were the talk of the offseason thanks to the signing of Bryce Harper and the additions of Andrew McCutchen, J.T. Realmuto and David Robertson.
On paper, Philadelphia should be one of the best teams in the National League, but it won’t be easy. The NL East is one of MLB’s best divisions, and we count nine NL teams that should be in the postseason mix. This team should play well, but nothing is guaranteed in baseball.

What does the Red Sox bullpen look like?

The defending champs have few weaknesses. The biggest concern for Boston entering 2019 is its bullpen. Red Sox relievers consistently made their fans nervous in 2018, and there are certainly more questions now on that front than before.

Kimbrel is gone (though he could still be re-signed), and last year’s bullpen stabilizer, Nathan Eovaldi, has moved to the starting rotation. Make no mistake, the Red Sox are well-positioned to make another championship run, but few things can sink a team like a bad bullpen. This will be something to watch closely in the early weeks of the season.

The encore performance of 2018’s top rookies

Shohei Ohtani, Ronald Acuna Jr., Juan Soto and Gleyber Torres turned the heads of baseball fans everywhere last year. Now it’s time for an encore.

Ohtani won’t pitch this year as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, and we probably won’t see him hitting at the MLB level until May. The other three are ready to roll. They won’t catch anyone off-guard this time around, however. The scouting reports are out; now it’s time to see how last year’s rookie stars adjust.

Clayton Kershaw’s rehab and health 

Kershaw will start the year on the injured list as he deals with an injury to his throwing shoulder. Any setbacks would be troubling for the 31-year-old pitcher, especially considering his recent injury history.

Unlike past seasons, the Dodgers rotation depth will allow the team to be patient with Kershaw’s recovery, but they’ll need him back healthy and pitching at a high level if this squad is finally going to get over the hump and win the World Series.

Is this Joe Maddon’s last run in Chicago? 

The 2019 season is the last on Maddon’s contract with the Chicago Cubs. He’s helped the Cubs win a World Series (the first for the team in 108 years, no less) and has been to four straight postseasons.

Chicago could try to extend his contract. If not, teams around the league are going to give a long look at making room for the highly regarded manager. Chances are that Maddon’s status beyond 2019 won’t be known in the early weeks of the season, but how the Cubs perform early on can and will drive a lot of speculation.

How soon other top prospects join Eloy Jimenez in MLB 

The Chicago White Sox deemed Eloy Jimenez MLB-ready right after he signed a contract extension. Whiich top-tier prospects will soon join him?

The two that come immediately to mind are Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Vladmir Guerrero Jr. (who is currently out with an injury) and San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. Others who can make a big impact include Houston’s Forrest Whitley, Colorado’s Brendan Rodgers, Toronto’s Bo Bichette and Chicago’s Dylan Cease, just to name a few. After such an impactful rookie class of 2018, we can’t wait to see what 2019’s group will offer.

Full Storyline List

By: Michael Dixon

After holding their cards at deadline, Nationals get what they can for Daniel Murphy, Matt Adams

Matt Adams’s backpack was pulled tight, a hat on backward, as he walked up the dim ramp from the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse to the players’ parking lot Tuesday afternoon. Clubhouse manager Mike Wallace walked alongside him, pushing a cart that contained a Nationals duffel and a bat bag, helping Adams open the door and carry them out to his car and into a final six weeks of the season spent elsewhere. Soon after, Daniel Murphy took the same route, heading out into the light and on to Chicago, his Nationals tenure over because he and his teammates just didn’t play well enough.

The Nationals traded three-time all-star Murphy to the Chicago Cubs and first baseman-left fielder Adams to the St. Louis Cardinals, the team announced Tuesday afternoon. In so doing, they all but waved the white flag on a season that began with World Series hopes and a roster talented enough to fulfill them. This team, under this general manager, has never before given up on a roster this talented.

“These moves allow us financial flexibility going into the 2019 season, to allocate our resources in that direction,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “These are tough decisions. To trade an ultimate professional like Daniel Murphy and Matt Adams is never easy. We feel that this was the best way to facilitate what we’re trying to do not only in 2018 and beyond. We always have the one-, three-, five-year plan in place, and this helps expedite those plans.”

Three weeks ago, at the nonwaiver trade deadline, the Nationals decided against selling off. The front office assembled potential deals, presented them to ownership, then decided to give the team a chance to steady itself. Over the next three weeks, the team did not gain ground. It did not tread water. Instead, Washington lost more games than it won and fell further behind in the National League East standings. On Tuesday morning, it was a game under .500 and 7 1/2 games out in the National League East, coming off an inexplicable and unacceptable 12-1 loss to the last-place Miami Marlins on Sunday.

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By: Chelsea Janes

T-Mobile Home Run Derby tonight

WASHINGTON — Steps from the United States’ seat of power, Major League Baseball will bring the power to Nationals Park tonight in the T-Mobile Home Run Derby. Homer-hitting host Bryce Harper leads a fascinating — and young — field of Derby entrants who will look to beat the clock and each other in the sport’s most swinging showcase at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.

Harper is the only one among the eight participating sluggers who has done the Derby before, having finished as the runner-up to Yoenis Cespedes in 2013 at Citi Field. So, Harper has the experience, and he’s got the comfort of competing in his own confines. But he’s also got some of the season’s biggest stars — and biggest surprises — to contend with.

Here are the seedings and first-round matchups for what is the youngest Home Run Derby field ever:

Left side of bracket
1. Jesus Aguilar, Brewers vs. 8. Rhys Hoskins, Phillies
4. Alex Bregman, Astros vs. 5. Kyle Schwarber, Cubs

Right side of bracket
2. Harper, Nationals vs. 7. Freddie Freeman, Braves
3. Max Muncy, Dodgers vs. 6. Javier Baez, Cubs

That’s the field, and the rules and format will be the same as they’ve been since 2015, which is to say the ticking clock and the importance of not just going deep but extra deep — with the dinger distances measured by Statcast™ having an impact on extra time allotments — are in full effect.

The average age of the participants is 26.39. As a matter of fact, this year’s oldest participants, the 28-year-old Freeman and Aguilar, weren’t even born when the Derby was first held in 1985.

• Home Run Derby history

Three of the participants — Hoskins, Schwarber and Muncy — are competing in the Derby despite not being selected for the National League All-Star squad. So we’ve got dingers, and we’ve got ringers.

Given the relative youth and the specific inexperience involved here, it’s difficult to know what to expect from this group. Harper can only hope that the groove he got into five years ago, when at 20 years old he became the youngest player to reach the Derby final, will be replicated.

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By Anthony Castrovince

Kiké Hernandez Hits Three HR To Lift The Dodgers Over Cubs. Make World Series

Written by Bradford Doolittle at ESPN.com

In the end, it was most fitting. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ quest for a pennant ended on the field where it began nearly a year ago, on the ancient grounds of Wrigley Field.

It was most fitting that the winning pitcher was the Dodgers’ longtime ace, Clayton Kershaw, who flashed his best stuff in two months and dazzled the Chicago Cubs for six innings. In years past, the Dodgers might have asked Kershaw to do more. This season, they didn’t need it.

It was most fitting that Kershaw didn’t have to carry the load himself. Not in the least. In a season when the Dodgers seemed to produce a fresh hero every night, it was lightly regarded utility player Enrique Hernandez who produced an epic clinching performance.

But someone else might have stepped up just as easily.

It was most fitting that a Dodgers team that led the major leagues in wins during the season stomped the now-former champion Chicago Cubs 11-1 on a chilly Thursday evening in Wrigleyville, obliterating any hopes for a miracle Chicago comeback and a championship repeat by taking the National League Championship Series in five games.

Finally, it was most fitting that the best Dodgers team in decades — a 104-win juggernaut — took their first National League pennant since 1988. After 29 seasons, the Los Angeles Dodgers are going back to the World Series.

The Dodgers jumped on Cubs starter Jose Quintana from the beginning, getting an RBI double from super rookie Cody Bellinger in the first and a solo homer from Hernandez in the second.

The latter was not a surprise. Hernandez is a righty-hitting specialist with the defensive versatility to plug spots all over the field. He hit .270 with 10 homers off lefties during the regular season.

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Cubs Take Game 4 From Dodgers, Down 3-1

Written by Ted Berg at USA Today.com

Five takeaways from the Cubs’ 3-2 win over the Dodgers in Game 4 of the NLCS at Wrigley Field on Wednesday:

1. Wade down

With a bullpen that owned a 6.35 ERA in the postseason entering play Wednesday, Joe Maddon leaned on closer Wade Davis for a two-inning save. Davis got the job done, but a shaky outing meant he required 48 pitches to get the six outs. That’s more than he threw in the outing against Washington in Game 5 that kept Davis out of the early part of the NLCS. Maddon said after the game that Davis would not be available Thursday. Given the length of his recovery after the last long outing, he could still be limited for a Game 6 in Los Angeles on Saturday if the series gets that far.

2. The Cubs still aren’t hitting 

Javier Baez ended his postseason 0-fer with a two-homer night, but the Cubs managed only five total hits with no walks and 11 strikeouts in the win, and they’ve still yet to score off the Los Angeles bullpen in the series. Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo both struggled again in the Game 4 win. What the Cubs need to get back into the series in earnest is a laugher, an offensive breakout that takes some pressure off the shaky bullpen. What they’ve got is an absent offense and a matchup with Clayton Kershaw on Thursday.

3. The Dodgers’ bullpen keeps chugging

Starter Alex Wood went only 4⅔ innings, but the Dodgers’ bullpen continued mowing down the Cubs’ lineup. A ninth-inning single off Tony Cingrani marked only the third hit the Cubs have notched off Dodgers relievers in the series, and they’ve yet to score a run against the bullpen. Plus, manager Dave Roberts avoided using setup man Brandon Morrow and closer Kenley Jansen in the game, meaning he could likely ride them for up to four combined innings if Kershaw exits early on Thursday.

4. Justin time

Justin Turner went 2-for-2 with a homer and two walks in the game. Among all MLB players in history with at least 100 postseason plate appearances, the Dodgers’ hirsute third baseman is the all-time leader in on-base percentage and ranks third in OPS behind only Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. Both he and Yasiel Puig have reached base more than half the times they’ve come to the plate in the series to date.

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Cubs Implode as Dodgers Take 3 Game Lead

Written by Jesse Rogers at ESPN.com

Four pitches. It took exactly four pitches in the top of the sixth inning of Game 3 of the NLCS to define the Chicago Cubs’ season. Mega-talented — and ultra-inconsistent — reliever Carl Edwards Jr. walked Dodgers starter Yu Darvish on four pitches with the bases loaded and two outs.

“Just couldn’t get down in the zone,” Edwards said after an ugly 6-1 loss.

Darvish, who spent his entire MLB career in the American League until July 31 of this year, had 31 career at-bats and only one walk before that moment. But Cubs relievers just can’t help themselves. Not Tuesday, not last round, not all of the second half of the season. They’ve walked themselves to the brink of elimination as the Cubs are down a nearly insurmountable 3-0 in the series.

“Walks are difficult,” manager Joe Maddon said before the game. “It’s difficult to manage the walk. I can’t deny that. How do you fix it?”

That might be a question for the offseason as the Cubs are one day away from possibly ending their title defense. Of course, when you score four runs in three games, you don’t deserve much in terms of victories, but who says you can’t win a low-scoring playoff game? Three times the Cubs have actually given their pitchers a lead in this series and three times they’ve given it back — and then some. There is plenty of blame to go around. After all, the Cubs have walked 43 batters in eight playoff games. That’s not just one guy losing his command.

“C.J. has been that guy,” Maddon said of Edwards. “[Pedro] Strop, to a certain extent, has been that guy also. [Mike] Montgomery, this year, during the course of the season showed that propensity also.”

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Dodgers Win On Walk Off HR Against Cubs, Taking Two Game Lead Against Chicago

Written by James Wagner at New York Times.com

In the 60-year history of the Los Angeles Dodgers, they had celebrated just one walk-off home run in the postseason entering Sunday. It occurred way back in 1988, and it was the legendary, pinch-hit shot that Kirk Gibson hit on wounded legs to capture Game 1 of the World Series.

Now the Dodgers have two. Twenty-nine years to the day that Gibson made history, Justin Turner followed suit, smashing a three-run home run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth that broke a 1-1 tie and gave the Dodgers their second straight victory over the Chicago Cubs and a two-games-to-none lead in their National League Championship Series.

Unlike Gibson, it has taken a while for Turner, a Southern California native, to turn into a major league star, but he is one now, distinctive for his all-around play as a third baseman and for his long red hair and beard. And now he has an emphatic postseason moment to add to his résumé, one almost as good as Gibson’s, which came with the Dodgers one out from losing.

“One of my earliest baseball memories was being at my grandma’s house and watching that game and watching Gibby hit that homer,” said Turner, who will turn 33 next month. “It’s incredible.”

Turner’s home run and romp around the bases was the exclamation point on an ecstatic scene inside Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers have not reached the World Series since 1988 when, propelled by the Gibson homer, they beat the Oakland A’s in five games. Now they are halfway to finally making their return.

As for the Cubs, the defending champions, they were left, again, to brood about their bullpen, which has struggled throughout this postseason and could not get Game 2 into extra innings.

In addition, Manager Joe Maddon was left to defend his decision to let John Lackey, a lifelong starter being used as a reliever in this postseason, face the dangerous Turner. In doing so, he passed over his All-Star closer, Wade Davis, who got a tough, seven-out save in the deciding game of the Cubs’ division series against the Washington last Thursday and has not pitched since.

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Nationals Lose Game 5, Cubs Advance To NLCS

Written by Barry Srvluga at Washington Post.com

This Thursday evening started in the mist and ended in a mess, and the educated Washington fan could have told you that when he or she woke up. The Washington Nationals played a game to extend their season. They lost that game. Their season is over. Those with strong stomachs, read further. The rest: See you in spring.

By the standards of a normal town, the fashion in which all this happened at Nationals Park was bizarre — funhouse mirror weird, baseball as a Dali painting. Here, in strait-laced Washington, it fits into the athletic fabric perfectly. The pattern, by now, is well-established. Washington might be able to muster optimism on a morning such as Thursday. It might, over lunch, convince itself of this advantage or that.

But get through the gate at the ballpark, and dread is so readily available. The concessionaires slip it between the hot dog and the bun, mix it into the carbonated beverages, slide it into the programs. By now, babies here are born with it, ingrained.

The final score at Nationals Park, in the fifth and decisive game of this National League Division Series: Chicago Cubs 9, Nats 8. The Cubs, champions a year ago, fly to Los Angeles to face the Dodgers for the right to reach the World Series. The Nationals failed to win a playoff series — again — the fourth time in the past six years they have reached this stage and taken a crowbar across the knees.

“Gut punch — again,” said pitcher Max Scherzer, who was in the center of Thursday’s canvas.

On this night, everything we have learned about Washington sports over the past generation was reinforced, with arguments about whether the anguish caused by the Nationals now outdoes that caused by football’s Redskins, basketball’s Wizards or hockey’s Capitals. Discuss among yourselves. We’ve got all winter.

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