Nats’ collapse sends fans straight to a winter of discontent

Never mind what the calendar says, or the thermometer. Pay no attention to the angle of the sun or the colors of the leaves. For 45,000-plus gut-punched fans at Nationals Park early Saturday and their heartsick seamhead soulmates regionwide — who had been so long with no hometown baseball or stuck with teams that had no prayer — the magical summer of 2012 only just now ended.

St. Louis 9, Washington 7 ­FINAL.

No happy bedlam in the nation’s capital; no delirious pandemonium in Nats red; no rollicking, towel-waving legions hugging and dancing in the chilly stadium air — just an early 6-0 lead for the Nats, squandered to the Cardinals, bit by bit, then a murmuring exodus from the ballpark, straight to winter.

“This team gave me more pleasure than any I’ve ever rooted for,” said Brian Miller, just after the Nats blew a 7-5 lead in the ninth inning.

They lost, three games to two, Major League Baseball’s first postseason series in the nation’s capital since the ’33 Senators of General Crowder and Heinie Manush. And now here’s another baseball first for the city: disappointment.

Not the ordinary distress of watching a season go sour in May or wither in the August heat, but true despair of the heartbreaking, stomach-churning kind. So awful is the history of baseball in Washington that until this season, almost no team since the Depression was successful enough to raise hopes that it could later dash.

Now Nats fans have genuine hardball psychic scars, the kind only good teams that come up short can inflict. Someday they’ll brag about them. In the meantime, they woke up Saturday to an old familiar sound — the rattle of dirt being shoveled on their team’s coffin.

The undisputed highlight of the year had come Thursday night when Jayson Werth pulled the Nationals from the brink of elimination with a ninth-inning, game-winning home run.

“That was the second-best sports event of my life,” said Steve Bergsbaken, 58, a Senate staffer.

Just before 1 a.m. Saturday, most of the lights went out in the emptied stadium. The party was officially, unequivocally over.

Marietta Toal stood silently with her husband behind the left-field bleachers. She stared at the darkened field and sighed. She blew a kiss.

“I had to say goodbye,” she said. “Goodbye, and I’ll see you in six months.”

She appeared to be on the verge of tears. She rooted for the Senators when she was a kid. They left when she was 13. She was thrilled to get baseball back in Washington. She was beside herself that the team made it this far eight seasons in.

“So this hurts,” she said. “I’ve been way, way up, and then I came crashing down. And you kind of hit that ground hard.”

In the lead car of a train on the Green Line north out of Nationals Park, fans talked to strangers as if tossed into an impromptu support group.

The first meeting began as the doors closed at 1:05 a.m.

Joe Cirincione, a self-described “recovering Red Sox fan” and Washington resident of 31 years, led the group.

“I think about how much I invested in this team,” said the Takoma Park season-ticket holder. “First, going to the games, then when they began winning, reading about the games, preparing for the next one. . . . I’ve never had a season like this.”

Others nodded in agreement. The conversation moved from closer Drew Storen to next season and back again.

At Mount Vernon Square, the train ended its journey, leaving the crowd to wait for connections.

“This train is out of service,” bellowed the conductor.

“Yeah, and this team is done for the season,” Cirincione retorted.

Before this year, how long had it been since Washington nurtured reasonable optimism nearly so deep into a baseball season? How many generations have passed since fans here felt the special sort of anguish that only a failed contender can inflict?

Sept. 30, 1945: That rainy afternoon in St. Louis, the great Hank Greenberg crushed a ninth-inning grand slam at old Sportsman’s Park, sealing the American League pennant for Detroit, with your Senators 11 / 2 games back in “the permanent shade of second place,” as the Washington Post’s Shirley Povich put it. How ancient a memory is that? Washington’s final game, a win in Philadelphia, was called after eight innings on account of darkness.