ST. LOUIS — Almost a year had passed since the Washington Nationals last came here, which just shows how slowly time can move in baseball. Last October, they arrived at Busch Stadium as both playoff first-timers and the team to beat. It all felt fresh and new when they faced the St. Louis Cardinals, and things have not been quite the same.
The Nationals returned Monday night no longer an upstart, but an established team staving off disappointment and swearing off expectations. They may still be in the final stages of recovery from their defeat in last year’s National League Division Series, and the team that knocked them out then officially eliminated them from contention for this year’s playoffs Monday with a 4-3 loss.
The Cardinals’ unyielding lineup beat up right-hander Tanner Roark over five innings. After Jayson Werth’s mammoth two-run homer in the first, Cardinals right-hander Adam Wainwright steamrolled them. The Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates both eked out victories, which put them both six games ahead of the Nationals in the NL wild-card race with five to play.
The team so many picked to win the World Series, 98-win darlings one year ago, had been mathematically eliminated. With five games left, the World Series or Bust Nationals had officially gone bust.
“You put the uniform on to win, and we didn’t get it done,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “So I feel bad for everybody.”
The Nationals retreated to a funeral-quiet clubhouse. Bryce Harper stared into his locker still wearing his full uniform — spikes laced up and the top button of his jersey fastened — 45 minutes after the last out. A clubhouse manager opened a soda can, and it echoed throughout the room. The television screens were black. Johnson sat in his office with two coaches. He sipped a glass of red wine; they took hauls from sweating bottles of Bud Light.
“We created this expectation. Nobody else,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “Two years ago, you would’ve said Washington Nationals, postseason, people would’ve laughed you out of town. The guys who are in here, for the most part, are the guys that created this atmosphere, created the expectations, and I’m proud to be a part of that.”
They reached this point after a desperate six weeks of trying to overcome the sluggish first four-and-a-half months of their season. They were 13-14 after April, 48-47 at the all-star break and 54-60 on Aug. 7. They have been the best team in baseball since, but they found their stride too late. They also faltered against top competition, going 14-29 against the five NL playoff teams.
Werth missed all of May except for two at-bats, and upon his return became one the best players in baseball. Harper began the year on an MVP course, then ran into two fences and either played hurt or not at all the rest of the way.
“I wasn’t there for a month,” Harper said. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I’m a game-changer or anything like that. But we’re a great team, and me being in this lineup is huge. I’ve got to try to be in this lineup every night.”
“It sucks,” he added. “We want to make the playoffs and that’s that. You play the whole year to try to get deep in the playoffs, October, November, and see if you can get to the World Series. It’s a bummer we didn’t get there.”
The night started with the Nationals aiming for a measure of revenge. Going back to Game 5, the Cardinals had beaten the Nationals four consecutive games. “They knocked us out of the thing, and they also swept us at home,” Johnson said. “They think they’re better than we are. It’s time we stand up.”
Immediately, the Nationals did. Denard Span led off with a single to left. With one out, Werth crushed Wainwright’s 2-2 curveball 439 feet to left field. The ball nearly grazed the facade of the upper deck, and the Nationals had seized a 2-0 lead.
Roark entered as a September sensation, having forced his way into the Nationals’ rotation with a 7-0 record and a 1.08 ERA. Monday, he lacked the precise command and crisp slider he showcased in previous starts. Two RBI singles, one in the first and another in the fourth, tied the score. In the fifth, Carlos Beltran walloped a 92-mph fastball over the plate’s heart. It landed in the home bullpen, and the Cardinals led, 4-2.
“Just didn’t have fastball command and was getting behind hitters a lot, Roark said. “When you do that with a good team, they’re gonna hit the mistakes.”
Wainwright took the game by the throat, allowing three base runners from the start of the second through the end of the seventh. The out-of-town scoreboard showed the Pirates and Reds in nip-and-tuck affairs. The Nationals had grown tired of checking, knowing only a win could save them.
“I didn’t look up one time,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said.
In the eighth, the Nationals threatened. Anthony Rendon ripped a single to center, and Steve Lombardozzi dropped a pinch-hit bunt single, which gave him a league-leading 13 pinch hits this season.
Wainwright walked off the mound, and relievers Randy Choate and Carlos Martinez scuttled the rally. Span pushed both runners ahead with a sacrifice bunt against Choate, and Ryan Zimmerman scored one run with a grounder to short against Martinez. Werth grounded out, too, and the inning ended.
Johnson had remained buoyant in the face of grim odds, unwilling to give up until the coffin had been closed. The scenario came abruptly. As the Nationals prepared to bat in the ninth, the Pirates won by getting the final out on a play at the plate, and the Reds walked off the New York Mets.
The Nationals needed one run before they recorded three outs. Down to one out, LaRoche popped up to Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma, their nemesis. On Sunday morning, they had a chance to end the day three games out of a playoff spot. Now, they were done.
“I guess that hasn’t really sunk in yet,” Desmond said. “I feel like we just lost, and it feels the same as it always does.”