With 79 years between playoffs games, perhaps Washington and Nationals fans forgot — or never knew — that baseball is designed to hurt. It lifts you high one moment, kicks you in the gut the next.
Tonight, the St. Louis Cardinals, baseball’s vampires, delivered a devastating shot to the solar plexus of the Nationals and their growing legion of fans, rising up from twice being one pitch from defeat to score four runs with two outs in the 9th inning to win the 5th and final game of the National League Division Series, 9-7. The Cardinals’ comeback marked the biggest recovery from a deficit in a deciding game in playoff history. Not the distinction the Nationals and their fans wanted.
After Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper and Michael Morse blasted home runs to stake the Nationals to a 6-0 lead after three innings, it looked as if the Nationals might enjoy a rare easy victory and move on to face the San Francisco Giants in the National League Championship Series, with the first game Sunday at Nationals Park. Cardinals’ starter Adam Wainwright, without the afternoon shadows to hide his pitches, threw 2 1/3 innings of batting practice to the Nationals hitters. In addition to the home runs, Jayson Werth doubled and Harper tripled.
Starter Gio Gonzalez looked like he had overcome his first game rustiness and jitters as he retied St. Louis batters with ease over the first three innings. After four innings, the Nationals led, 6-1.
However, these are the defending World Champion Cardinals, who won two elimination games last season, defeating the 102-win Philadelphia Phillies in the NLDS and then, after being in the exact same situation as tonight, defeat the Texas Rangers in Game 6 of the World Series.
In the 5th inning, Gonzalez came unglued. Despite a five run lead and facing the bottom of the Cardinals order, the Nats’ starter let game MVP Daniel Descalso double and issued three walks. When the damage ended, the Cards had closed a large gap to a manageable three runs and chased Gonzalez from the game.
As the Nationals Park record crowd of 45,966 alternately cheered and fidgeted, St. Louis, as champions do, continued to chip away. Releivers Edwin Jacskon and Tyler Clippard allowed runs in the 7th and 8th innings narrowing the gap to a single run, 6-5. Nervous Washington pitchers issued six walks leading up to the 9th inning. Somehow, though, the Cardinals still trailed, mainly due to going 1-12 with runners in scoring position.
In the Nationals’ 8th, the club, after going into hibernation since the third inning, scored what appeared to be a huge insurance run when catcher Kurt Suzuki lined a 2-out RBI single to center off of nasty St. Louis closer, Jason Motte, who ended up being the game winning pitcher.
In the 9th, all-star Carlos Beltran (3-3, 2 walks), led off the inning with a double. Washington closer Drew Storen, who pitched brilliantly the previous afternoon and was working his third consecutive game, quickly settled down and retired Matt Holliday on a grounder to third and struck out Cardinals’ clean-up hitter Allen Craig.
One out, one pitch separated Washington from a series win and absolute bedlam on South Capitol Street. Then, after getting one ball, two strike counts on both Yadier Molina and David Freese, Storen appeared reluctant to throw a pitch in the strike zone, instead trying to get St. Louis’ veteran hitters to chase a slider. Neither did, though Freese nearly went too far on a check swing to end the game. In the end, Storen, a “strike thrower” with a 3 to 1 strikeout to walk ratio, uncharacteristically walked both hitters, loading the bases.
After the game, Washington manager Davey Johnson said, “Giving up all those free passes, that’s not how you win ballgames. We had the right people there. We just…got a little too cautious.”
Storen’s wildness cost the Nats dearly. Light-hitting Descalso roped a line drive up the middle, just off shortstop Ian Desmond‘s glove. Desmond appeared to stumble on his first step toward the ball and it ended up deflecting off his glove into short centerfield. Lightning fast pinch runner Adron Chambers scored from second to tie the game. Five pitches later, light-hitting Pete Kozma lined a single to right, putting St. Louis into the NLCS and plunging a dagger into the hearts of Nationals’ fans at the ballpark and watching on television all over the D.C. Metro area.
How did Storen, working his third consecutive day, have such an inexplicable meltdown? Johnson said, “I think he tried to be too fine. He wasn’t alone. You can’t win big ballgames by giving free passes. You have to trust your defense behind you and go at them.
“You gotta make them earn it. Unfortunately, we didn’t.”
Champ of the Game: The Cardinals had many, but Descalso gets the nod for his home run in the 8th to bring the game to a run and his clutch hit in the 9th to erase a two-run deficit when failure meant the end of the season. Descalso is a poor hitter, but he came through in the clutch tonight.
For the Nats, Bryce Harper played excellent centerfield, tripled, homered and scored two runs. The future is bright for this young man and — hopefully — his team.
Chump of the Game: The Nationals pitching staff. Even in the playoffs, even against the Cardinals, seven runs should be more than enough to win, even a deciding playoff game. Unfortunately, Nationals pitchers walked 8 batters, inexcusable with a 6-run cushion. Give any team enough chances, especially the defending champions, and they will eventually kill you. It took a long time, but the free passes finally haunted the team and resulted in a crushing defeat, the most excruciating day of baseball in Washington since 1933.
For the Cards, Molina and Craig combined to go 0-7, but with 3 walks.
Unsung Heroes: The incredible fans of the Washington Nationals. They turned out in droves, cheered their hearts out, and got their hearts broken. Anyone, anywhere who claims Washington is not a baseball town after this season is simply a jerk or an idiot. Those folks have been forever exposed as the fools that they are. Nationals fan proved they are the equal of any in baseball.
Next Game: None. The Washington Nationals wonderful, 100-win 2012 season is over. Pitchers and catchers report next February.