The Washington Nationals and their newly-minted fans grew up this week. Over the course of three days in southeast D.C., they hung out with the defending World Series champions. The Cardinals showed them the ropes of autumn baseball, gave them glimpse of life in the postseason's pressure cooker.
St. Louis even let the Nats & Co. take a quick sip from the victors' cup, like older cousins overseeing a youngster's first drink. But the Cardinals didn't allow the Washingtonians to gulp it down. The champs snatched it away in mid-swallow, before anyone could became acclimated to the taste.
Now Washington knows how Texas felt last season, when the Rangers twice were one strike away from vanquishing the Cardinals. Now everyone knows what it's like to be so close to a raucous playoff celebration that you see it in your mind as if it were unfolding in front of your face. Which should occur any second.
But then everything goes terribly wrong. The opponents score the go-ahead runs before the third out and there's no miraculous comeback and the season is over in stunning fashion. That's what St. Louis did to the Nats with a 9-7 victory Friday night in Game 5 of the National League Division Series.
It's as if the Cardinals put the Nats and this suddenly-feverish-about-baseball city through a cruel initiation process, a painful rite of passage for newbies looking to cross over. With a four-run rally in the ninth — completing the comeback from 6-0 hole — St. Louis both confrimed its standing and acknowledged the Nats' arrival:
"Welcome to adulthood, kiddies. You made it. Go get 'em next year."
The shocking defeat in Game 5 will leave a mark that stings forever. No matter how many good times and how much winning might lie ahead, the Nats will always look back on Friday night with regret, thinking about what could've/should've happened. It's like the lingering regret from blowing it with your first love, even though you moved on to enjoy successful relationships with others.
"I told them it's nothing to hang your head about," manager Davey Johnson said. "It was a great year. We overcome a lot of problems. We proved our worth and we just need to let this be a lesson. Learn from it, have more resolve, come back and carry it a lot farther."
One lesson is never count out the Cards. Not when you're up 6-0 after three innings. Not when you (finally) add an insurance run in the eighth inning, pushing the score to 7-5. And certainly not when your closer is on the mound and twice you're one strike away from the National League Championship Series.
You never know when two walks, two hits and four runs might follow.
When St. Louis second baseman Daniel Descalso hit a game-tying, two-run single, there was a palpable sense of "What just happened?" in Nationals Park. Even the scoreboard operators were discombobulated. They momentarily put St. Louis ahead, 8-7, before correcting their mistake.
Drew Storen had blown the save, but he was one strike away of leaving the score tied when shortstop Pete Kozma lined a two-run single to right. The record crowd of 45,966, which moments earlier was as loud as a throng can be, was stunned speechless. Attempts to muster another "Let's go Nats!" chant weren't totally in vain, but the results were half-hearted and lifeless.
"I'm sure this will be a learning process," Storen said. "But you've got to let the wound heal first."
School was in session the past week, but not just for the Nats — most of whom had never reached the postseason before. This was a lesson for fans, too.
Outside of Game 3 and the ninth inning of Game 5, they had an absolute blast and were into every second of the action. But they didn't constitute the most-savvy baseball crowd. They howled when St. Louis batters took a pitch, whether it was close or missed by a mile. They hooted in attempts to startle the Cardinals' fielders as they settled under fly balls. At least they never got the wave going.
"Obviously this year we gave them some fun times and some good memories," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "But I think this is only the start. Hopefully they'll be as excited for next year as they were this year and we'll continue to grow as a team and give them something like this every year to look forward to."
The fact is, Washington baseball grew up this week, from the team on the field to the folks in the stands. It rode the emotional rollercoaster of postseason play, where moments fluctuate from tight and tense to delightful and delirious.
The Cardinals are moving on, but not before initiating the Nats and fans to the next level.
It's nice up here. Don't be surprised if D.C. sticks around for awhile.
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