- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 13, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Where shall we hang this one in the D.C. Sports Hall of Horrors? Over here, next to the Redskins’ 73-0 annihilation in 1940 title game? (Nah. That disaster deserves a mausoleum of its own.) Maybe over here, near the Bullets’ no-show in the ‘75 finals. Or over here, beside the sweeping of the Capitals in the ‘98 finals.

There are plenty of places the Nationals’ ninth-inning unraveling Friday night might fit in Washington’s museum of athletic misery. Twice they were within a strike of a 7-5 win over the St. Louis Cardinals — and a berth in the National League Championship Series. But Drew Storen, their normally reliable closer, couldn’t finish it off. With a man on second and two outs, he loaded the bases with a pair of walks, then gave up singles to Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma to turn a celebration at Nationals Park into a wake.

Cards 9, Nats 7. Good thing we’ve built up an immunity to this stuff, right?

Let’s face it, pain has been the D.C. sports fan’s constant companion in recent years. The pain of a Redskins franchise run aground. The pain of one Caps playoff flameout after another. The pain of the Wizards violating the laws of basketball and society. It hurts, on some level, to follow any of these teams; it’s like watching a tear-jerker you already know the ending to.

And in their first seven seasons in Washington, the Nats were right there with them, averaging 95 losses for a five-year stretch and topping 100 twice. But those Nats have been replaced, miraculously, by the best-record-in-baseball Nats, and for eight innings Friday they seemed poised to take away some of D.C.’s pain, perhaps a lot of D.C.’s pain.

Twenty-four hours after they staved off the hangman in Game 4 thanks to a Jayson Werth walk-off homer, they got the crowd of 45,966 — a Nationals Park record — jumping by scoring three in the first and three in the second. That’s right, they gave their best pitcher, Gio Gonzalez, a six-run cushion.

We’re not used to this in the nation’s capital. We’re not used to clutch performances in pressure situations. We’re used to Eagles 59, Redskins 28, on Monday Night Football. We’re used to Penguins 6, Caps 2, in Game 7. (Both of which, I regrettably remind you, took place in Washington.) We’re used to clubs with more bark than bite, clubs that drive for show but don’t putt for dough.

But for 8 2/3 innings Friday, the Nationals looked like they might break the spell. Ryan Zimmerman’s homer was an encouraging sign, but the dingers by Bryce Harper and Michael Morse seemed even more portentous, since they’d hardly been heard from in the series. Besides, how many times this season had Davey Johnson’s best-in-baseball pitching staff blown a big lead?

But the Cardinals are a team that, a year ago, refused to be defeated, rallying time and again when their season appeared to be over. A gamer World Series champ you’ll never find. And in Game 5 they showed the same resolve, chiseling away at the deficit with a run in the fourth, two in the fifth, another in the seventh off Edwin Jackson and another in the eighth off Tyler Clippard.

That made it 6-5. It also made those 45,966 hearts beat a lot faster. And with good reason. The Cardinals were coming back, sure, but the Nats’ pitchers also were killing themselves with walks — eight in the last six innings (Gonzalez 4, Jackson 2, Storen 2). Incredibly, five of the Cards who walked came around to score.

“To give up that many free passes … that’s not the way you win ballgames,” Johnson said. “I think [Storen] just tried to be too fine. He’s got a great-moving live fastball. Just need to throw it over. [But] he wasn’t alone. It seemed like Gio had the [same] problem. You just can’t win big ballgames by giving free passes. You’ve got to trust your defense behind you, go after ‘em. … Got to make ‘em earn it.”

Despite all this self-destruction, the Nationals almost lived to tell about it. Kurt Suzuki, the ever-helpful late-season pickup, drove in an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth, giving Storen a bit more margin for error. But then …

“I think the last three outs are the hardest in baseball,” Adam LaRoche said. “I don’t know why it is, but crazy stuff happens. You’ve got a guy like Drew, who throws some of the nastiest stuff in the game …”

I’ll finish the sentence for him: but if you can’t hit the strike zone when you need to, it doesn’t do you much good.

A major-league leading 98 wins, a first-ever NL East title, a 6-0 lead in the deciding game of the division series — all for naught. The Nats’ season is over. Thud.

Washington, I’ll just point out, is 21 years removed from its last championship in a major sport (Redskins, 1991), 33 years removed from its last NBA Finals, 14 years removed from its only Stanley Cup Finals (a sweep that was over almost as soon as it started). This ain’t exactly Titletown, U.S.A.

The Nationals had a chance to change all that — or at least change the direction of things. But they’ll have to wait until next year to do it. How many days until pitchers and catchers report?

“This is the first time I’ve felt this way,” said Suzuki, who had never before been on a playoff team. “This really stinks.”

Alas, it isn’t the first time D.C. has felt this way. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t really stink.