The question of how baseball could be so cruel to this city may be answered some day. It existed in horrible form in the nation’s capital for decades, and then it vanished for 33 years. It came back gnarled and wretched for seven more seasons, only to yield to this blissful summer, to the moment Friday past midnight when Drew Storen stood on the mound at chilled Nationals Park and, with two outs in the ninth inning, threw 13 pitches that could have moved the Washington Nationals four wins from the World Series.
The St. Louis Cardinals would not allow it. Baseball, this town’s cold mistress, the sport that dares you to love it, would not let it happen. The Nationals led the Cardinals by six runs after three innings. They led by two runs after eight innings. Washington’s miserable relationship with baseball had been exorcised, until it materialized in a more wrenching, twisted fashion than ever seen before.
The defending world champions would not die until they scored four runs off Storen in the top of the ninth inning, snatched a 9-7 victory in Game 5 of the National League Division Series and left 45,966 stunned souls to ponder what they had just witnessed: consecutive, two-run singles from Daniel Descalso and Peter Kozma, two pesky middle infielders at the bottom of the Cardinals’ fearsome lineup.
“There’s a bad taste in my mouth,” Storen said. “It’s going to stay there for a couple months, and it’s probably never going to leave.”
The Nationals won 100 games this season, more than any team in the majors. They captured the National League East crown. They delivered a baseball team Washington embraced like none in a generation, or maybe two, or maybe more. When it ended suddenly Friday night, like the arrival of an October cold snap, the players walked into a silent clubhouse with plastic sheets rolled up above their lockers, never to be used for the intended purpose.
“You can see the see finish line and taste it,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “You’re an out or two or a pitch or two away. And you don’t win it. You got to get all 27 outs before you can pack up the bats. We don’t know what to do tomorrow. It’s Saturday, and we don’t have a game.”
They would have played Game 1 of the National League Championship Series on Sunday at Nationals Park. Manager Davey Johnson made the easy decision in the ninth inning, leading 7-5, and gave the ball to Storen, the 24-year-old who saved 43 games last year and regained his top form late this season after rehabbing from April elbow surgery.
“We had the right people there,” Johnson said.
Carlos Beltran cracked a leadoff double. Storen retired the next two batters he faced, sending the record crowd into a frenzy when he struck out cleanup hitter Allen Craig with a slider. He moved to two strikes on the next two batters, Yadier Molina and David Freese, before he walked them both to load the bases.
“I made good pitches,” Storen said. “I wouldn’t change a thing. I have no regrets.”
He still needed just one pitch — one line drive at someone, one routine grounder, one lazy flyball. Descalso smoldered a one-hopper up the middle. Shortstop Ian Desmond dove, but the ball deflected off his glove and rolled into shallow center field.
“He hit it good,” Desmond said. “I did the best I could to get my glove on it.”
As the ball trickled into the outfield, pinch-runner Adron Chambers scored the tying run. Kozma, that pest, followed with a two-run single into right field. Freese crossed with the winning run.
“It’s hard to believe, man,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “You have games like these throughout the course of the year where stuff happens. And you shake it off. You get beat in the ninth inning and you shake it off, because you know you have to come back tomorrow and play. You get accustomed to forgetting about it. Unfortunately here, there’s no tomorrow.”
The Nationals’ top of the order produced only three outs against Cardinals closer Jason Motte in the bottom of the ninth. Ryan Zimmerman, the franchise third baseman who slogged through all six of the Nationals’ losing seasons, lofted the final out to shallow right field.
As the Cardinals rushed the field, the record crowd started with polite applause. The clapping turned into a “Let’s Go Nats!” chant. They wanted to show their appreciation, but they could not hide their sorrow. Fans filed out, and groundskeepers in navy sweatshirts raked dirt. The park had been a party after three innings. Now it was a morgue, a burial ground for the team made Washington embrace baseball again.
“It’s the transition from being a team that was capable of losing a game to a team that was capable of winning a game,” right fielder Jayson Werth said before the game. “It’s the transformation of a team into a winner. This team is a winning team. It’s a good club. We’re tough. We’re tough.”