Stephen Strasburg signs autographs before Game 1 of the NLDS in St. Louis. (Jonathan Newton/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Hours before dawn Saturday morning, Manager Davey Johnson insisted his Washington Nationals would make up for the bitter disappointment their fans had just endured in Game 5 of their National League Division Series loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.

We’re always told that one of the best things about sports is there is always Next Year. The Nats pitchers and catchers will report to Viera next February full of hope, and the Florida sun will be a tonic to help everyone forget the events of October.

All well and good. General Manager Mike Rizzo has built a team that should contend for years to come. But there’s a difference between contending and winning. There’s a difference between the hollow cheers that ring out when you unfurl a banner that reads, “Division Champions,” and the roar that accompanies one that bears the words, “World Champions.”

To learn that lesson, the Nationals need look only about a mile to the north and west at all the mini-banners the Capitals have hung in Verizon Center.

The difference between the Caps and Nats? The Caps have always gone down swinging. The Nationals lost with one arm tied behind their back.

There’s no guarantee the Nationals would have won this series or the World Series if Stephen Strasburg’s season hadn’t been shut down more than a month ago. But even if you’re convinced that ending Strasburg’s season early was the right thing to do, at least consider this question: Do you honestly believe the Nationals would have wasted a 6-0 lead Friday night had Strasburg been the starting pitcher?

What if the Nationals had trotted out a four-man rotation in this series of Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann (pitching at home where he’s far more effective) and Ross Detwiler and Edwin Jackson had never seen the mound? Do you really believe the Cardinals would be playing in the National League Championship Series?

 This series wasn’t lost when Drew Storen let it slip away after getting within one strike of ending it. It was lost when Nationals owner Ted Lerner bought into agent Scott Boras’s line that the Nationals had to sign Jackson to help eat up some of the innings Strasburg wasn’t going to pitch.

Boras told The Post’s Mike Wise he told Lerner, “You better sign Edwin Jackson because we have this plan for Stephen Strasburg . . .

Lerner gave the $11 million to Jackson, a pitcher with a career record of 60-60 and an ERA of 4.50. And what did Jackson do for the Nats? He went 10-11 (on a team that won 98 games) with an ERA of 4.03. He also started Game 3 against the Cardinals and managed to completely silence a frenzied crowd at Nationals Park by giving up four runs in the first two innings. When Johnson inexplicably brought him in to pitch the seventh inning in Game 5, he gave up a run that proved crucial. If Storen had been pitching with a three-run lead in the ninth instead of a two-run margin, he might not have been quite so careful and could have forced Yadier Molina to put the ball in play as the tying run.

Ifs and buts.

They’re all parts of dissecting any defeat, but this loss is different because it was brought about by a decision made in February. There’s simply no getting around it, no saying, “Well you never know.”

Maybe you don’t know, but you can make a very educated guess. The Nationals were one pitch from winning this series without Strasburg. Does anyone really think they wouldn’t have been better off with Strasburg in the rotation instead of Jackson? Johnson surely would have pitched Detwiler had he had to choose one or the other.

The worst part wasn’t the Strasburg plan itself; the worst part was the insistence on sticking to it. In sports, you have to adjust on the fly. In football, it’s called an audible. When the Nationals spent the first half of the season proving they were as good as anyone in baseball, the brain trust needed to audible — with Boras not part of the conversation.

Strasburg should have been stretched out: a stint on the disabled list; a couple of missed starts; a few games in which his pitch count was no more than 75; anything that could have kept him pitching into October. No one wanted to jeopardize Strasburg’s future — although he was coddled from the moment he was signed in August 2009 and still ended up needing Tommy John surgery a year later.

In the spring of 2010, the Capitals entered the playoffs with hockey’s best record. They took a three-games-to-one lead in the first round against a mediocre Montreal Canadiens team. Then, somehow, they collapsed and lost the series in seven games. The stunned silence of Caps fans leaving Verizon Center that night was deafening. Still, there  was always Next Year.

For the Caps, Next Year hasn’t come yet.

It may very well come in 2013 for the Nats — or it may not. Regardless, here’s the difference between the Caps and the Nats: The Caps didn’t rest Alex Ovechkin because his agent wanted to save his legs for the future.

The Nats didn’t lose because Storen couldn’t get one more out. They lost because of hubris and stubbornness and the wrong person leading the decision-making.

Next Year will come soon enough. But the pain of this loss will linger for a very long time.

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