Our Long “Nationals” Nightmare began about 9:30 p.m. Central Standard Time last night.
In the top of the 5th inning of the deciding Game 5 of the National League Divisional Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Washington Nationals, Nats lefty Gio Gonzalez was pitching with a 6-2 lead, buoyed by an early outburst of long-ball power by Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse. Finally, after a terrible offensive showing in the series’ four previous games, the Nats’ bats had come alive, and, with Cy Young candidate Gonzalez on the mound and a standing-room-only crowd of 45,966 at Nationals Park cheering wildly, it looked like the Nation’s Capital’s baseball team would advance to the National League Championship Series. (And make me a very happy Nats fan.)
Then the power blew at my house. The entire apartment complex was out. Everything went pitch black. Goodbye, lights. Goodbye, TV. Goodbye, PC. Only half dressed, I stumbled around for my cell phone, to use it to light my way to my shirt and shoes. Finally, I poked my head out my front door, only to see other apartment dwellers wondering what was going on. The whole neighborhood, as far as the eye could see, was in darkness.
“WTF?” I said to myself. I phoned a friend—who happens to be a Cardinals fan. He commiserated about the power outage, and updated me on the game. It was now 6-3, but the action had moved on to the 6th inning, and he really wasn’t optimistic about the game’s direction. (Sure, I thought, it’s nicer to be ahead.)
Yet it didn’t look like Nashville Electric Service was going to be Johnny-on-the-spot with the repairs, so I made the only decision I could: I got in my car and made my way to a sports bar in nearby Hillsboro Village.
Frankly, I do not like to watch important sporting events at a bar. I like watching them in my living room, with my food and my beer and my victorious whooping (when applicable) and my tears of despair (also when applicable).
I should have known it when it happened: the power outage had fucked with my karma. And a painfully long evening had begun.
I arrived at the bar, found a seat and waited for the overworked barmaid to take my order. It took her forever to arrive. Meanwhile, I had to listen to this guy sitting next to me—an obnoxious Cardinals fan—clap his hands loudly on EVERY SINGLE PITCH.
I finally got a bottle of beer, but I could not stand sitting next to this guy. So I moved from the bar to a table near another large-screen TV. Alas, there I was surrounded by more Cardinals fans, loud and urging on their heroes. (In fact, I soon realized that about 95% of the patrons were rooting for the Cards.)
I watched the TV and saw that Nationals manager Davey Johnson had brought in Edwin Jackson to pitch the 7th inning. “WTF??” Jackson is one of the most nerve-wracking and unreliable starting pitchers in the league. He once threw a no-hitter, and he has some talent, but you NEVER know what you will get with him, and this was the most important game of the year, with the team nursing a three-run lead (which had been a six-run lead, so the hemorrhaging had begun).
Jackson’ll drive you crazy, and I suppose it was a blessing to see that he “only” gave up one run. Typically, he walked batters and had to extricate himself from a mess. So now it’s 6-4…and what happens next? The TV I am watching blows out. No shit. Boom. No picture, no sound. Gone.
“WTF??” Now I move to another part of the bar, beer bottle in hand. I eye a petite blonde lady who is sitting with friends and is… a Nats fan! An occasionally vociferous Nats fans!! So I find a table near her and hope the karma will stay positive for the remainder of the game.
No such luck. The two guys at the table in back of me represent more of that ardent Cardinals fandom and keep up the chatter. “C’mon, Allen.” “C’mon, Yadi.” “C’mon, Pete.”
It’s now the 8th inning, and the Nats bring in Tyler Clippard, their setup man and sometime closer. He’s pretty good, but he was not dominant late in the season. So what does he do? He gives up a home run to none other than the great Daniel Descalso, the Cards second-baseman who hit a whopping .227 this year. Doh!
Now it’s 6-5, and the walls of inevitable ineptitude are beginning to close in, though neither that blonde lady nor me can give up hope. I mean, we DO have the lead, right?
And, when, in the bottom of the 8th the Nats add a run to make it 7-5—and there are only three Cardinal outs left to get—well, maybe…..MAY BE…
All season, the Nationals have been defined by their pitching. They can hit a little, yes, but they were very erratic in that department. Anyone who followed the team all year knows that it was pitching that made it possible to eke out many close victories. And let’s face it, pitching is the name of the game in the major leagues.
Enter Drew Storen, a young relief stud who excelled in 2011 but entered 2012 with physical problems that took him months to work out. He had seemed to finally have gotten into shape down the stretch but his reliability was still an unknown—especially in the biggest game of his life. (To be fair, Storen had won the previous night’s game, pitching a scoreless ninth inning just before Jayson Werth hit a dramatic walk-off homer that ended an extremely tense pitchers’ duel.)
Of all the monsters in this frightful scenario for the Nats, Storen proved to be the most ghastly. Yielding three hits—including key blows by that Descalso guy and the immortal Pete Kozma (a 24-year-old rookie who batted .232 in AAA ball before a late summer call-up to replace the injured Rafael Furcal)—and two unforgivable walks, Storen made a mockery of quality relief pitching, as the Cardinals scored four 9th inning runs to take a 9-7 lead.
With that, I left the bar. The inevitable was nigh. Some sporting events take on lives of their own. This was not only the Great Cardinals Comeback—it was also the Great Nationals Choke.
When I returned home, my power was back, the game was over, and I learned that the Nats hitters in the bottom of the ninth had faded 1-2-3. The power outage theme for the evening was now complete.
For a team cannily built on pitching, the Nats’ playoff performances pretty much sucked. In the three games they lost, Nats pitchers yielded 29 runs on 38 hits and issued 17 walks. While ace Gonzalez pitched okay in two games, he was not lights out, and his lack of control kept inviting trouble. The well-respected Jordan Zimmermann got hammered in Game 2; ditto Jackson in Game 3. Only youngster Ross Detwiler in Game 4 acquitted himself like a champion.
No further proof was needed that the Nats were not the same team without Stephen Strasburg. When they shut down the young ace for the season in deference to concern for the possible untoward stress on his surgically repaired elbow, they changed the delicate character of their team. Jackson, a pitcher who is fine for regular season use, will never be the third starter on a championship team, and his ascension as a key player in the Nats playoff run played a critical role in their downfall.
General manager Mike Rizzo and Nats fans everywhere will now get a long, long off-season to ponder the what-ifs of what was, otherwise, a pretty exciting season.
As for karma and power outages? They’re a bitch.
And our long Nationals nightmare...is over. (With apologies to the late President Gerald Ford.)