Given this team’s tortured playoff history, it would’ve been understandable for Barlow and the 42,000 other red-clad Nationals fans at Tuesday’s wild-card game to expect the worst, tense up or check out emotionally after the Brewers took a 2-0 first-inning lead. Yet the energy in the ballpark persisted, even as Washington managed only three hits through the first seven innings and faced a 3-1 deficit in the eighth.
Tom and Mary Lundregan attended the Nationals’ Game 5 loss to the Cardinals in 2012 and the Game 5 loss to the Cubs in 2017. They both had a feeling that Tuesday’s outcome would be different, even after Yasmani Grandal’s two-run homer put the Nationals in an early hole.
“Until this year, it would’ve been, ‘Here we go again,’" Tom Lundregan said. “But there’s something about this year that’s different. It’s the same way we thought about the Caps two years ago. You can’t put your finger on it. Maybe it’s the camaraderie or the group, but man, we love these guys."
The effect of the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup triumph on the psyche of the D.C. sports fan, and even within the Nationals’ clubhouse, is real.
“They’ve shown that it’s possible,” Adam Eaton said while sporting a Capitals hat ahead of the wild-card game. “They’re very inspirational to us. They show what a bond of brothers and really guys coming together as one can do in this city. The way they partied afterward, I think everyone in this clubhouse would love to do as well. We’re not quite hockey players, so I don’t know if we’re going to be going swimming in any fountains or anything, but hopefully they’ll inspire us to get there.”
Capitals play-by-plan John Walton’s “It’s okay to believe” mantra from the Stanley Cup run seemed to permeate the Nationals Park crowd on Tuesday. Fans started chants throughout the game, cheered louder when a Nationals pitcher got to two strikes on a batter, booed the heck out of Ryan Braun and stuck around for what, until Soto’s heroics, looked to be another bitter end.
“In years past, it would’ve been down to 15,000 people by the eighth inning,” said Lundregan, who tempted fate by wearing a red Gio Gonzalez jersey.
“The fans were just amazing,” MASN analyst F.P. Santangelo said Wednesday on 106.7 The Fan. “Even after the Brewers [took a 2-0 lead], it didn’t get weird, it didn’t get awkward, it didn’t get quiet. The fans still brought it all night long. … They should give themselves a standing ovation.”
It probably helped that Tuesday’s winner-take-all bout moved along quicker than previous deciding games at Nationals Park, and that fans didn’t have to worry as much about leaving early to catch the last Metro train home. In addition to the Capitals effect, perhaps the biggest contributing factor to why Tuesday’s crowd never seemed to lose hope was how this year’s Nationals team had gotten to this point after starting the season 19-31. It was around that time that Manager Dave Martinez and his team adopted their own mantra — “Stay in the Fight."
“We had rally caps on and felt like we were still in the fight this time,” Tom Lundregan said.
“We were thinking, we’ve been here before this season,” said Mary Lundregan, who nevertheless was so stressed when Soto delivered the game-wining hit that she started to cry. “We’ve done this.”
“With what these guys have been doing, finding a way to come back all year, especially late in the season, it was still possible,” said Holly Blackledge, who attended the game with her husband, Dennis.
“This is the most amazing win I’ve ever seen these guys pull off,” Dennis Blackledge said, watching players and their families celebrate on the field after Victor Robles tracked down Ben Gamel’s line drive for the final out. “In the end, they caved and we didn’t.”
“It’s not over ‘til it’s over with this team,” Ballantine said. “Soto had been in a slump, but he’s big on ‘Stay in the Fight,' so he’s the guy we were expecting to see come through."
“We were here when they were down,” Rogers said. “You get a different feeling when that happens. You just got a feeling that they might be able to do it.”
“I’ve been saying it since early in the year, that there’s something about this team,” Barlow said. “I don’t know if they’re a team of destiny, but like Davey [Martinez]says, ‘1-0,’ let’s just do that and go from there."
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