The defending world champions would not die until they scored four runs off Storen in the top of the ninth inning, snatched a 9-7 victory in Game 5 of the National League Division Series and left 45,966 stunned souls to ponder what they had just witnessed: consecutive, two-run singles from Daniel Descalso and Peter Kozma, two pesky middle infielders at the bottom of the Cardinals’ fearsome lineup.
“There’s a bad taste in my mouth,” Storen said. “It’s going to stay there for a couple months, and it’s probably never going to leave.”
The Nationals won 100 games this season, more than any team in the majors. They captured the National League East crown. They delivered a baseball team Washington embraced like none in a generation, or maybe two, or maybe more. When it ended suddenly Friday night, like the arrival of an October cold snap, the players walked into a silent clubhouse with plastic sheets rolled up above their lockers, never to be used for the intended purpose.
“You can see the see finish line and taste it,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “You’re an out or two or a pitch or two away. And you don’t win it. You got to get all 27 outs before you can pack up the bats. We don’t know what to do tomorrow. It’s Saturday, and we don’t have a game.”
They would have played Game 1 of the National League Championship Series on Sunday at Nationals Park. Manager Davey Johnson made the easy decision in the ninth inning, leading 7-5, and gave the ball to Storen, the 24-year-old who saved 43 games last year and regained his top form late this season after rehabbing from April elbow surgery.
“We had the right people there,” Johnson said.
Carlos Beltran cracked a leadoff double. Storen retired the next two batters he faced, sending the record crowd into a frenzy when he struck out cleanup hitter Allen Craig with a slider. He moved to two strikes on the next two batters, Yadier Molina and David Freese, before he walked them both to load the bases.
“I made good pitches,” Storen said. “I wouldn’t change a thing. I have no regrets.”
He still needed just one pitch — one line drive at someone, one routine grounder, one lazy flyball. Descalso smoldered a one-hopper up the middle. Shortstop Ian Desmond dove, but the ball deflected off his glove and rolled into shallow center field.
“He hit it good,” Desmond said. “I did the best I could to get my glove on it.”
As the ball trickled into the outfield, pinch-runner Adron Chambers scored the tying run. Kozma, that pest, followed with a two-run single into right field. Freese crossed with the winning run.
“It’s hard to believe, man,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “You have games like these throughout the course of the year where stuff happens. And you shake it off. You get beat in the ninth inning and you shake it off, because you know you have to come back tomorrow and play. You get accustomed to forgetting about it. Unfortunately here, there’s no tomorrow.”
The Nationals’ top of the order produced only three outs against Cardinals closer Jason Motte in the bottom of the ninth. Ryan Zimmerman, the franchise third baseman who slogged through all six of the Nationals’ losing seasons, lofted the final out to shallow right field.
As the Cardinals rushed the field, the record crowd started with polite applause. The clapping turned into a “Let’s Go Nats!” chant. They wanted to show their appreciation, but they could not hide their sorrow. Fans filed out, and groundskeepers in navy sweatshirts raked dirt. The park had been a party after three innings. Now it was a morgue, a burial ground for the team made Washington embrace baseball again.
“It’s the transition from being a team that was capable of losing a game to a team that was capable of winning a game,” right fielder Jayson Werth said before the game. “It’s the transformation of a team into a winner. This team is a winning team. It’s a good club. We’re tough. We’re tough.”
Inside an otherwise silent clubhouse, reporters murmured questions and hands clapped from goodbye hugs and handshakes. Storen sat in a chair facing his locker, elbows on his knees, his chin in his hand. Teammates rubbed his shoulder or patted him on the back. Most of them said nothing.
“I don’t know what to tell that guy,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “We’re both feeling the same thing. We’re both disappointed, upset. You can’t really sugarcoat anything right now.”
The Nationals were tough enough to force Game 5. They could not win it, not even after taking a 6-0 lead after the third inning, with their ace, Gio Gonzalez, standing on the mound. The Cardinals had won five consecutive elimination playoff games going back to last year. None came quite like this one.
The Nationals had scored nine runs all series, and Friday night, against Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright, they scored six in the first three innings. Four days shy of his 20th birthday, Bryce Harper went 2 for 4 with a triple and a home run, making him only the second teenager to homer in the postseason. Zimmerman clobbered a two-run homer in the first. Michael Morse deposited Wainwright’s 53rd and final pitch in the visitors’ bullpen.
The Cardinals scored three runs while drawing four walks in the fourth and fifth innings off Gonzalez, who retired Molina to end the fifth with the bases loaded on his 99th and final pitch. Once Gonzalez exited early, he left Johnson with a vexing math equation: How to get 12 outs from his bullpen without allowing the Cardinals’ fearsome lineup three runs?
In the seventh, Johnson chose Game 3 starter Edwin Jackson over, among other choices, usual setup man Ryan Mattheus. Prior to the game, Johnson said he planned to use Jackson only if the game lurched into extra innings. But now he turned the right-hander who won the 2011 World Series with St. Louis, who entered with a career 5.70 ERA as a reliever.
“I just felt like Jackson was the best choice,” Johnson said. “I had to get through that part of the lineup.”
His first inning is usually Jackson’s worst, and he put Nationals fans through an emotional vice. He walked leadoff man Jon Jay and yielded a double to Carlos Beltran. The tying run came to the plate in the hulking person of Matt Holliday. Jackson survived with an RBI groundout.
With two outs he walked Molina on four pitches to bring Freese, last October’s hero, to the plate as the go-ahead run. Jackson abandoned his fastball and struck out Freese swinging at a vicious, 88-mph slider to leave two men on base.
Six outs to go. Johnson had his reliable one-two combo, Tyler Clippard and Storen, set for the eighth and ninth. The comfort of that disappeared when Descalso cranked a fastball from Clippard into the home bullpen beyond the right field fence, shrinking the Nationals’ lead to 6-5.
After all the fireworks in the early innings, what appeared to be the Nationals’ most crucial run came late, in a grind-it-out rally against Cardinals closer Jason Motte. Suzuki, added in an August trade, ripped a single up the middle with two outs and runners on the corners, bringing in LaRoche with an enormous insurance run.
Three outs to go. In came Storen, the 10th overall pick in the 2010 draft. The park came unglued after the second out, roaring for the pitch that would clinch the Nationals’ trip to the National League Championship Series. It never came. They are all still waiting, waiting for the long winter ahead, and for the hope the Florida sun will help erase Washington’s newest, worst baseball memory.
“This game has taught us all a lot,” Zimmerman said. “And one of the things it’s taught us is to never take anything for granted.”