The final hush of the Washington baseball season came in parts late Thursday night at Nationals Park, first when Wilmer Difo swung and missed at the final pitch in the dirt, then for good when the catcher’s throw beat him to first base.
Not until then, when it was completely and totally over, did Tanner Roark stop warming up in the Washington bullpen for an appearance that would never happen. Not until then did his Nationals teammates, rapt and hopeful on the top dugout step, look away. Not until then, because they had rallied and rallied and rallied again in a 4-3 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a decisive Game 5 of their National League Division Series, did the Nationals begin the long process of accepting another October disappointment.
Another offseason will bring the familiar unanswerable questions. They cannot rebuild because they are not broken. They cannot do nothing because they fell short again. These Nationals won 95 games, the second-best team in the National League during the regular season, the best team in the National League East for all but a few days. Again, it did not matter. Again, it was not enough.
Washington fans, trained for frustration but mustering hope anyway, did not go silent when it fell apart this time. When the Dodgers took the lead in the seventh, the crowd chanted, “Let’s Go, Nats!” They booed when the scoreboard brought news that the last train to Greenbelt would leave at 11:39 p.m. When the Dodgers intentionally walked Daniel Murphy to load the bases with two out in the seventh, it was precisely 11:39 p.m. No one appeared to have left.
This city is in a decades-long relationship with sports postseason failure, one the Nationals inherited but did not create. Try as they might, neither the fans nor the Nationals could divorce themselves from that history Thursday night.
The evening began with the man who threw the first pitch in Nationals history, Livan Hernandez, throwing a ceremonial first pitch to Ryan Zimmerman, the man who has played with almost every player to wear the Nationals uniform.
Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper and others will be remembered as the Nationals’ first annual contenders, as the core group that elevated the franchise to competitive respectability. They also might be remembered for what they could not do in October. Fairly or not, the latter memory tends to linger at least as vividly as the former.
“I don’t think it’s make-or-break,” Zimmerman said before the game. “. . . Say we win this game and don’t make it out of the [next] round. I don’t think anyone is going to be like, oh, remember that year when we went to the championship series?”
But for an organization as young as this one, with a core that has come as close as this one, taking that next step matters a great deal. The Dodgers had lost in the NLDS the past two years, but such brief streaks take up only a small part of the collective memory.
For the Nationals, the recent regular season success followed by playoff failure is all they have. Thursday was the second Game 5 in team history. Just like the first, it devolved in the hands of their bullpen.
Three teams with at least 95 wins in the past five years indicate an organization doing something right, but until the Nationals prove they can win games like Thursday’s, the club’s leadership will face questions about what is wrong.
General Manager Mike Rizzo usually responds to those questions with statistics, about how his team has won more games than all but one other over the past five seasons combined, about the division titles and their rapid rise and all the other positives about this franchise that should not be ignored. His original 2016 playoff plans included Stephen Strasburg and Wilson Ramos, both of whom were too injured to help.
“We’ve had a great season this year,” Rizzo said before the game. “Will I be disappointed [if we lose]? Yes. Would I think it’s not a successful season? No, I think it’s a successful season.”
Run down the list. Pick a character. Everyone in the dugout or the boxes upstairs or the season-ticket seats could feel the same ambivalence.
“This was some of the best baseball I’ve ever been a part of,” Jayson Werth said. “I’m proud to be a National. These guys fought all year. . . . It stings right now to be in this situation and be heading home when you feel like you’ve got so much left in you to play.”
Thursday night’s starter, Max Scherzer, might win the Cy Young Award as the league’s best pitcher. He responded to a disheartening Game 1 performance with a powerful Game 5 showing. He carried a no-hitter into the fourth, did not allow a run until the seventh — but somehow did not do quite enough. As with so many outings this season, one pitch — his only one in the seventh inning, which Joc Pederson hit over the left field fence to tie the score — undid nearly 100 dominant ones.
Murphy nearly won a batting title this season and drove in a franchise record four runs in Game 4 — but popped out with a chance to tie the score against Clayton Kershaw in the ninth inning. Harper hit 24 home runs, had a few big hits and a few bigger walks this series but will spend the offseason answering questions about why he wasn’t as good as in his 2015 MVP season. Werth had chances and so did Anthony Rendon. Good seasons came to discouraging finishes, particularly for their manager.
When Difo struck out, when it was really over, Manager Dusty Baker had lost his ninth straight elimination game dating from the 2003 NLCS. If playoff suffering is a prerequisite to playoff success, Baker and the Nationals are both somewhat overqualified.
“It’s not an overnight process,” Baker said afterward. “You do have to go through some pain. It’s not a very pleasant pain. I’ve gone through that pain a few times now. But you have to persevere. . . . If you just keep persevering, something will happen. Something good will happen.”
Even Baker, the man so happy for another chance, so hoping this was the team that would finally win him a World Series title, could not help the Nationals go further. At this point, he will join his players, management, ownership and the rest as they spend the winter wondering what will.