On the night of April 4, they gathered at Joe’s Stone Crab on East Grand Avenue in Chicago. The Washington Nationals had come north from Viera, Fla., and the next day they would begin their six-month odyssey together at Wrigley Field. For the first time, they huddled as one. The faces would change, the players would come and go. That was how it began.
The end came Friday, on a cold and unfathomably cruel night. The Nationals’ 9-7 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, in which a six-run lead dissolved over two excruciating hours, cut short their magical season. Saturday, the Nationals began to look ahead to the offseason with the specter of Game 5 still hovering over them.
In the postgame clubhouse Friday night, players hugged and clasped hands. Some of them wondered whether they would come back next season. Others had ensuing appointments for offseason surgery. Stephen Strasburg could move beyond the unprecedented decision that shaped his season. None of them could shake the immediate sting, but neither could they ignore the 100 games they won or the NL East title they captured.
“We’ve come a long ways,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “I think that’s why it hurts even more, because of what we’ve all been through. We should be proud of what we did this year. We were the first team in this organization to be to this level.”
The brutal finish to a magical season will invite second-guesses, starting with decisions Manager Davey Johnson made in Game 5. Johnson’s actions all season stemmed from showing confidence in using players in their established roles. In Game 5, as he tried to cobble together the final 12 outs, Johnson veered away from his usual tack.
All year, Johnson had used Ryan Mattheus in the seventh inning against right-handed lineups. He had Game 3 starter Edwin Jackson available, in the same role Jordan Zimmermann filled brilliantly in their Game 4 victory. But Johnson made clear before Friday’s game that Zimmermann had pitched the day before because the Nationals’ bullpen was worn from a Game 3 beatdown. He said Jackson would pitch only if the game lurched into extra innings.
“My bullpen was kind of overused on the day before,” Johnson said before Game 5, explaining his decision to use Zimmermann. “I really needed somebody for that seventh inning.”
But in the seventh inning Friday, Johnson chose Jackson over Mattheus, and Jackson allowed one of the runs that enabled the Cardinals to chip away at the lead.
“I just felt like Jackson was the best choice I had to get through that part of that lineup,” Johnson said late Friday night. “He did the job for me. He gave up a run, but he did what we needed to to get to the people we needed to get to.”
In the ninth inning, Johnson used closer Drew Storen on a third consecutive day, which could have been avoided earlier in the series. In a Game 3 blowout, Storen pitched the ninth and threw 11 pitches in an 8-0 loss.
Storen had pitched on three straight days once all season, on Sept. 10, 11 and 12. But on Sept. 11 and 12 he threw five total pitches, recording just one out in both games. By using him in Game 3, Johnson enhanced the odds that he would trust Storen, who underwent elbow surgery in April,with a larger workload in three consecutive games than he carried all year.
Johnson made another difficult choice at a decisive moment. After Daniel Descalso ripped his game-tying, two-run single in the ninth, runners stood on the corners with two outs. Pete Kozma, a menace all series, stood at the plate. Descalso stole second to vacate first base.
On deck was the closer, Jason Motte, whom the Cardinals wanted to leave in the game for the ninth. If the Nationals had simply intentionally walked Kozma, the Cardinals would have been forced to either pinch-hit for Motte or let a reliever hit with the bases loaded and the score tied in the ninth.
The Cardinals, of course, would have chosen a pinch hitter. They had only one position player left on their bench: Tony Cruz, the backup catcher, a 26-year-old with a .257 batting average and one home run in 191 career at-bats.
Even if Cruz had improbably burned Storen with a go-ahead, bases-loaded hit, the Cardinals would have moved to the bottom of the ninth with a reliever other than their closer. They had rookie Shelby Miller, left-hander Marc Rzepczynski and Lance Lynn available in the bullpen. Rzepczynski and Lynn had given up game-winning hits in the series, and Miller, 22, had replaced injured starter Jaime Garcia on the roster.
The downside in walking Kozma would be putting Storen in position to push the go-ahead run across with a walk. Storen had walked two batters in row — throwing five two-strike pitches that could have ended the game — and Johnson may have worried about his control.
Johnson let Storen face Kozma, who flared a two-run single into right field. After shock fell over the park, Storen whiffed Motte on four pitches, and then Motte recorded a 1-2-3 inning to seal the game.
Johnson was not made available for comment Saturday and declined to respond to a message.
The wrenching finish could have been avoided with a better start, too. The Nationals gave Gio Gonzalez a six-run lead after three innings, and over the next two innings Gonzalez allowed four walks, leading to three runs. With Strasburg sidelined, Gonzalez became the Nationals’ de facto ace. In Game 5, given a huge lead, he could not put the hammer down.
The result — as well as the 5.25 ERA by Nationals starters in the NLDS — has led some to grumbling again about General Manager Mike Rizzo’s decision to shut down Strasburg. Rizzo knew the criticism would come and stood by the choice in the losing clubhouse Friday night.
“I’m not going to think about it, no,” Rizzo said. “We had a plan in mind. It was something we had from the beginning. I stand by my decision. We’ll take the criticism as it comes. We have to do what’s best for the Washington Nationals, and we think we did.”
Inside the clubhouse, at least on the record in the aftermath of their brutal Game 5 loss, players revealed no angst about the Nationals’ keeping Strasburg in the dugout for the final three weeks of the regular season and the playoffs.
“Stephen did great for us,” reliever Tyler Clippard said. “And everyone knew what the situation was. And there’s not a guy in this clubhouse that thought any differently of, ‘Oh, what if this? What if that?’ That was not in our control. And we’re not worried about it. Not a guy in this clubhouse was worried about it. I know I wasn’t.”
Said first baseman Adam LaRoche: “We were fine with it. In a sense, we appreciated that Rizzo stuck to his guns — he said he was going to shut him down and did it.
“Of course we’d love to have him. Who wouldn’t? There’s not a team in baseball that wouldn’t want him in the postseason rotation. But they’re looking out for him. We had the horses to do it. We had the guys to do it without Stras. It’s just one of those things.”
More on the Nationals:
Feinstein: It was a bad time to not play an ace
Gallery: Scenes from Game 5