ST. LOUIS — When the Washington Nationals last inhabited the visitors’ clubhouse here at Busch Stadium, their outlook was filled with promise. The bite of the autumn air just more than a year ago signified the start of the postseason for baseball’s best team, and imaginations danced with all that could possibly lie ahead of them. It was fresh and exciting. It ended in unfathomable defeat.
Monday night, silence drenched that same clubhouse.
Forty-five minutes had passed since their 4-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals had finally slammed shut the door to the postseason they’d hopefully kept cracked these last few weeks, and Bryce Harper sat at his locker in his full uniform, reluctant to take it off. Players dressed quietly. Some huddled together and talked, their tones hushed.
The loss, combined with nail-biting wins by the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates, mathematically eliminated the Nationals from the playoffs and clinched spots for both of those teams. In a span of 11 minutes, as each game went final, a season that began under the headlines of ‘World Series or bust,’ ended with the cold reality that sudden irrelevance brings.
“It’s tough,” said manager Davey Johnson, whose swashbuckling guarantee last December became first a motto for his team and then the bar against which all of their struggle was measured. “You put the uniform on to win, and we didn’t get it done. I feel bad for everybody.”
“The postseason door is officially closed,” said shortstop Ian Desmond. “It doesn’t feel great.”
“You play the whole year to try to get deep in the playoffs, and see if you can get to the World Series,” Harper said. “It’s a bummer we didn’t get there.”
The end came slowly, and suddenly all at the same time.
When they arrived at Nationals Park early Sunday morning, the potential existed for them to shave their deficit to three games by the end of a long day of baseball. Less than 48 hours later, their chances had gone from slim, but hopeful, to difficult, but not impossible, to entirely non-existent.
They sent their rookie wonder Tanner Roark to the mound in hopes that the same pinpoint command that had helped him jump-start his major league career with a 7-0 record and 1.08 ERA could keep them alive, regardless of what happened in the games of their wild card competitors.
But he wasn’t as crisp as he had been in his previous outings, and the Cardinals patched together base hits and bleeders to match the Nationals’ first-inning output from Jayson Werth’s homer off Adam Wainwright, before Carlos Beltran’s two-run blast into right field in the fifth served as the back-breaking blow.
“He threw the ball pretty good,” Johnson said of Roark’s five innings. “But I thought his command wasn’t as good as in the past — probably because of the magnitude of the game, all the things riding on it.”
It was not this one game, though, that the Nationals will look back on when they reflect on a season filled with missed opportunities. Instead it will be too many games that fell by the wayside under the guise of “It’s early,” as their offense underperformed, their defense turned in too many sloppy games and their pitching faltered more often than it did a year ago.
“It got so frustrating for months,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche. “Not being able to figure it out, you start to doubt yourself. The last month or two has kind of proven that this team can go out there and get it done, we’ve just got to find a way to be consistent.”
“We created this expectation, nobody else,” Desmond said. “Two years ago, if you would’ve said ‘Washington Nationals, postseason,’ people would’ve laughed you out of town. The guys who are in here, for the most part, are the guys that created this atmosphere, created the expectations and I’m proud to be a part of that.”
Perhaps the end stung that much more because of how it came. The Nationals vastly underperformed for the season’s first four months, but their August and September — when they played like the best team in baseball — gave them a glimpse of exactly what they’d lacked early on. Harper pointed to his own month-long absence and injuries as one reason, but it was hardly the only one.
“We didn’t do the things we were capable of doing early,” Johnson said. “We came back strong, but that’s baseball. I love those guys. Great talent, great makeup. We just didn’t get it done… There’s a thousand different reasons why we didn’t.”
They have five games remaining in their season, a minuscule amount when considered in the scope of the 162-game marathon, and then they’ll turn their eyes toward the 2014 campaign.
A year after they experienced such joy, such jubilation, when they wrapped up the National League East title, they were reminded how cold elimination can be — with nowhere to look but inward.
“If we would’ve played the way we did in August and September early on in the year we probably wouldn’t be in this situation,” Desmond said. “But this is what it is and we’ve got to deal with it.”