Were the Cardinals really down to their last strike on five different pitches? How many checked swings on the sliders of loser Drew Storen would have ended their season, had they gone another foot?
Get used to it. That’s the nature of the baseball beast. The trek to a pennant, to World Series visits, even to a title, usually take years and, almost always, pass through dark, cold and unforgiving nights like this.
Save the part about “it makes the ultimate victory all the sweeter.” Maybe we’ll be ready for that after awhile. Could take some time. Remind me again: How long is winter? And when do pitchers and catchers report?
For nearly four hours on Friday night, the Nationals seemed on the verge of beating the Cardinals and moving on to play the San Francisco Giants for the National League pennant. Even now the words seem almost hallucinatory. But it was that close — hold fingers inches apart — a League Championship Series against a team the Nats dominated in five of six meetings during the regular season.
Then the reason that the Cardinals are the defending world champions — as well as one of the toughest and most fortunate teams of recent decades — began to come clearer and clearer.
Finally, in a four-run ninth inning against Storen, the red trim of the Cardinals uniform began to look entirely too much like blood. The biggest crowd in Nationals Park history, 45,966, still stood until the end, pleading for the obviously impossible, until finally Ryan Zimmerman, perhaps the Nat who deserved the distinction least, made the last out at 12:29 Standard Hades Time.
The pattern of this game, on a chilly night, was nothing short of diabolical, yet typical of the tests that playoff baseball poses. Can you accept the fact that no lead is safe? That the utterly ridiculous or improbable will happen? And that every squandered opportunity, every ground ball off the tip of a glove, will almost inevitably prove fatal when you play against a team that is uttlerly indistinguishable from your own image.
The Nats led 6-0 after three innings after an assault of three home runs, a triple and a double. The homers were by Zimmerman, with a man on, Bryce Harper, who also had an RBI triple, and Michael Morse, a two-run shot after a Zimmerman double. Well, that takes care of the good stuff, except for a marvelous, clutch two-out single by Kurt Suzuki in the bottom of the eighth that gave the Nats an “insurance run” — surely the bitterest of euphemisms at this moment.
The Nats’ lead slowly dissolved, frittering to 6-3 on the watch of starter Gio Gonzalez. Then the margin reached 6-4, 6-5 — you see the pattern, familiar, no doubt to arch-fiends worldwide — then finally 7-5 going to the ninth inning. After hours of standing and cheering, the crowd finally found itself more in the mood for kneeling, and perhaps praying.
On five different pitches, the Cardinals were down to their last strike. But both Yadier Molina and David Freese walked to load the bases with two outs. Little second baseman Daniel Descalso, far from a great player, not a monumental menace to Washington in this series, slapped a hard ground ball back up the middle.
In this game, it could not be a simple, clean hit. It had to have agony in every stitch. Shortstop Ian Desmond, one of so many Nationals stars who played above expectations in a season that produced exactly 100 wins, dove to make a stop, perhaps turn a miracle final out. But the play was clearly a hit, dribbling into center field to tie the game. A two-run single sliced to right field by rookie Pete Kozma was the final dagger.
At one level, what has happened in the last six days, and especially in the last two days in a pair of the most exhilarating, agonizing baseball games you will ever see, will — in time, oh, definitely, this will take time — whet the appetite for future seasons. After all, if this is what the (toxic) shrimp cocktail and (poisoned) tomato soup are like, what on Earth are the main courses like?
In the last two days, an entire city has grasped why baseball — the October version for the highest stakes — produces millions of baseball fans. And, as Washington has also learned, those fans end up in three categories: incurably fanatic, temporarily in remission or still recuperating in intensive care.
This week, the Nationals ended a season but probably began an era. After generations of competitive starvation, the District hosted three playoff games with the Nats holding the best regular-season record in the sport.
There will be other seasons. But, for the Nats, none so thrilling, so shattering, so moving, as the first — the first, that is, that really mattered.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.