What were the possibilities — indeed, it seemed, the probabilities — on the first day of April, when the Washington Nationals initially took the field at Nationals Park for the 2013 season? A packed-to-the-rafters crowd of 45,274 filed in, dressed in red, to celebrate a division title from the previous fall, anticipating another over the coming months. Right-hander Stephen Strasburg all but reduced the Miami Marlins to tears in his seven innings, and outfielder Bryce Harper announced himself to the nation with home runs on each of his first two swings. Baseball bliss, way back then.
“It does seem like a long, long time ago,” center fielder Denard Span said Sunday.
Sunday night, Strasburg again took the mound against the Marlins, and Harper again trotted out to left field. Nationals Park, though, seemed a vastly different place, dead by comparison. In the hours before, the Nationals suffered a debilitating loss to Miami, the National League’s worst team, that their own manager — the retiring Davey Johnson, honored before the game — described as “flat.” In the hours after, they completed their home schedule with a makeup game against the Marlins. At 5:45 p.m., when the public address system blared, “All gates are now open,” the section of Half Street SE that leads from the Metro stop was nearly barren. At 7:06, when Strasburg unleashed his first pitch, the radio broadcast of the event — normally played in the concourses to keep fans abreast of the game — rang clearly into the stands, they were that empty.
And the Marlins’ first hitter promptly ripped a double.
The Nationals aren’t officially eliminated from postseason contention yet, just practically so. A lost summer that was nearly saved with a brilliant stretch of baseball in August and September — wins in 23 of their 30 most recent games prior to Sunday — slipped away with an awkward staging of the final home game. Because Saturday night’s game against the Marlins was rained out, the Nationals hosted an odd split doubleheader to close the 81-game home portion of their schedule — the regularly scheduled game at its normal afternoon start time 1:35 p.m., then the makeup 51 / 2 hours later.
So there was no way an unusual season would end in the usual way, because fans who held tickets for Saturday night’s game could exchange them for another — in 2014, which suddenly seemed far more appealing. Sunday afternoon’s 4-2 loss to Miami officially sealed the National League East championship for the Atlanta Braves.
“We’re obviously in a tough position,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “We had to win every game. It’s tough to do that at this level.”
But there was a time when it seems that was expected of these very same Nationals. Before the season, Strasburg and Harper appeared on the cover of two issues of Sports Illustrated. The 2012 NL East championship was billed merely as the first in a series of inevitable steps that would lead back to the playoffs, but this time deeper.
Yet Washington flailed about for the first half of the season, unable to score enough runs. The Nationals entered the all-star break a game above .500, then lost their first six when play resumed. It took them another month just to get back to level. All year, they fought against the burden of potential they had placed on themselves. They couldn’t conquer it.
“You ask anybody in here, and I think we beat ourselves way too many times this year,” Strasburg said. “There’s no doubt that we have the ability to get to the playoffs and go deep in the playoffs.”
In order to make themselves even marginally relevant over the final week of the regular season, the Nationals had to win both games Sunday. Down 4-2 in the opener, the healthy afternoon crowd of 35,101 tried to get behind the Nationals in the ninth.
But Span and Zimmerman went down on strikes, Zimmerman rolling his eyes at the umpire afterward – a symbol of the season. And when Jayson Werth popped out to first base to end the game — and, in some ways, the season — he never even dropped his bat.
Instead, he held it as he walked slowly back to the dugout. He looked at the barrel, both studiously and aimlessly, before trudging down the steps to the clubhouse. Bob Marley’s voice wafted softly through the stadium speakers, reminding folks that “Every little thing gonna be all right,” even as the evidence suggested otherwise.
A half-hour after that slow march, Werth strew himself across a couch in the clubhouse still wearing his game pants, his spikes. Around him, a bag sat in front of each of the Nationals’ lockers, packed at the top with a road jersey, ready for the season-ending trip to St. Louis and Arizona. And a clean white home jersey hung at each locker, ready for one last use. Opening day was a memory, and with another game to play on the final day of the home season, it suddenly seemed more palatable to look ahead than behind.
“Here we are in the last week of the season,” Span said. “We came out with a bang.”
They ended the Washington part of that season Sunday night with a whimper. In the bottom of the ninth, the small crowd provided what celebration it could when catcher Wilson Ramos smashed a grounder to third, a ball that was booted to provide the winning run in a 5-4 victory.
Johnson then proclaimed, in an interview on the center field scoreboard afterward, “We still got a chance.” But not the chance they had that first day of April, when people clamored to find a seat, and the possibilities were endless.