Get used to this, Washington, because it might not be next week, but it could well be next year, or the year after that. There could be more playoff baseball in your future, and it will likely be more tense by half. At 10:28 p.m. Friday night, Gio Gonzalez got Yadier Molina to lift a flyball to right field, the final out of the fifth inning, leaving the bases loaded in a game that had already grown waaaaaaay too close.
And then, the difficult, stomach-turning part: Gonzalez’s Washington Nationals led the St. Louis Cardinals, 6-3, in Game 5 of their National League Division Series. In order to move on to the next round, they needed 12 outs. Didn’t matter who the pitcher was or how many chipped in, what their role was previously or how they felt Friday night. Twelve outs to protect the lead, or the offseason was at hand.
“This game,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said, “you’ve got to get all 27 outs.”
Got an hour and 52 minutes, a stiff drink, a couple superstitions and some fingers through which to peer? Because here we go:
Gonzalez, the Cy Young candidate who was handed a 6-0 lead, was done after 99 pitches. First up: Craig Stammen. His body of work this postseason: three appearances, 21 / 3 innings pitched, three runs allowed. Not a guy who, at this point in the season, instilled confidence.
But after a leadoff single, Stammen chipped away at that long list of outs to get. At 10:41 p.m., he retired Daniel Descalso on a liner to center. No big deal? Maybe. But they were down to 11 outs to go.
Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma, a minor league fill-in who destroyed the Nationals this series, came up next, and his bouncing ball toward second base should have ended the inning. Yet here’s where the tension — for everyone in the dugout and the stands, on couches and in bars — surfaces. Danny Espinosa couldn’t dig the ball out of his glove quickly. The opportunity for a double play came and went. At 10:44 p.m., they had a fielder’s choice for the second out of the inning, but that was it. There were 10 outs to go.
With the Cardinals sending up Skip Schumaker, a left-handed batter, as a pinch hitter, Nationals Manager Davey Johnson turned to lefty Sean Burnett, a man with a frayed left elbow. On guts alone, Burnett — whose fastball hovered at 87 mph — got Schumaker to roll over a pitch and ground to first, the final out of the inning. At 10:47 p.m., they had nine outs to go.
Johnson, then, got creative, perhaps overly so. Before the game, he said Edwin Jackson, who had started and lost Game 3, would be available out of the bullpen “if we went past nine innings.” But here came Jackson in the seventh. And when he started by walking Jon Jay and allowing a rocket of a double to right by Carlos Beltran, the crowd grew still more unsettled, the entire lower bowl standings. At 11:09 p.m., Jackson got a grounder out of Matt Holliday, the Cardinals’ third-place hitter. It turned into both an out and a run, and St. Louis was within 6-4.
Still, they were down to eight outs to go.
Jackson had pitched out of the bullpen for Tampa Bay in the 2008 season — 41 / 3 innings over three appearances in which he allowed one run — but it is not where he is comfortable. Still, he used a nasty slider to strike out cleanup hitter Allen Craig. At 11:12 p.m., there were seven outs to go.
But for any fan who thought the Nationals’ three-run outburst in the first would allow them to lean back and use his or her whole seat, rather than just the edge, here came Jackson, walking Yadier Molina, the tying run. David Freese — make that, World Series hero David Freese — could have put the Cardinals ahead. St. Louis, for perhaps the first time all night, may have stood with an advantage.
Yet Jackson, somehow, reached back for another slider, one that dove toward the dirt. At 11:16 p.m., Freese swung through it. Exhale, for a minute. There were six outs to go.
With that, the Nationals’ bullpen was in tact. Ever since Drew Storen got healthy after the all-star break, he had either pitched the eighth or ninth, and Tyler Clippard, Storen’s roommate, took the remaining inning. By the start of the postseason, Storen had clearly re-established himself as the closer. So at 11:30 p.m., the bullpen door swung open, and Clippard emerged to pitch the eighth.
How difficult are these outs to get? Clippard got two strikes on Descalso, who then turned on a pitch and deposited it into the Nationals’ bullpen, beyond right field. The solo homer still left six outs on the board, and the lead — so healthy so long ago — was down to 6-5.
“You work your whole life,” Clippard said. “These moments don’t come easy.”
Clippard, though, was an all-star a year ago, and he saved 32 games this season. So he would turn the lead, and the game, over to his roommate. At 11:35 p.m., a pop out. Five outs to go. At 11:39 p.m., a high fastball that pinch hitter Matt Carpenter swung through, a strikeout. Four outs to go. And at 11:42 p.m., a flyball to center, reeled in by Bryce Harper.
Three outs to go.
“I think the last three outs are the hardest in baseball,” Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “I don’t know why it’s so much harder than the other eight innings, but something about it. Crazy stuff happens in the ninth inning.”
Storen’s task was made a hair — just a hair — easier because Kurt Suzuki’s two-out, RBI single in the bottom of the eighth gave the Nationals a 7-5 advantage. The hitters he had to face: Beltran, Holliday, Craig. Power against power.
“Against somebody like Drew, who’s got some of the nastiest stuff in the game, to give up some runs,” LaRoche said, “it just doesn’t happen.”
Beltran, though, opened by blasting a double to center, but his run wasn’t the important one. Holliday’s was, and at 12:02 a.m., he provided a gift, an easy bouncer to third. Two outs to go.
With the largest crowd in Nationals Park history alternating between throaty roars and eerie silence, Storen then reached for one two-strike fastball, and Craig fouled it off. But at 12:06 p.m., Storen turned to his slider. Craig couldn’t touch it.
One out to go.
“I made good pitches,” Storen said. “I wouldn’t change anything.”
It came to Molina, who fouled off a 2-1 pitch. One out to go? One strike to go. He wasted a slider low, and Molina did well to take it. And then came ball four. Freese came to the plate as the go-ahead run.
The ride, it is hard to watch, and can be painful.
“Those are close pitches,” Nationals veteran Chad Tracy said. “They’re taking them to get to the next pitch. They battled.”
Freese fouled a 1-1 pitch straight back, and again Storen needed one strike. Again, a slider. This time, it was Freese who laid off. A fastball then sailed outside. Full count.
“They’re good hitters,” Storen said. “That’s what makes them good: they have quality takes. That’s what makes them successful.”
A pitch later, he lost him. The bases were loaded. The Cardinals pinch ran for Molina with Adron Chambers. And there was still one out to get.
Storen couldn’t get it, not in time at least. Descalso, such an unlikely hero, ripped a pitch up the middle. Washington shortstop Ian Desmond dove, and the ball glanced off his glove. Beltran scored and Chambers came in to tie it. And after Pete Kozma drove in two more, the Nationals’ big lead was a big deficit, 9-7.
The Cardinals allowed Jason Motte, their closer, to hit for himself. At 12:20 p.m., Storen struck him out. It was the 12th out, the out they needed. It came, though, two batters too late.
More on the Nats-Cardinals NLDS:
Boswell: A bitter pill for a first taste
Gallery: Scenes from Nationals Park
Bog: Teddy wins again
Video: Military family reunites