The Washington Nationals came as close as they ever have to a playoff berth on Wednesday evening. And by Wednesday night, in spite of a heart-pounding rally that started out impossible and ended simply improbable, they were still just that far away.
The District that has waited 79 years to celebrate postseason baseball will have to wait at least one more day.
Needing one victory to ensure at the very least that they'd be participants in the wild card round of the playoffs, the Nationals staged a late comeback but fell 7-6 to the Los Angeles Dodgers. They brought themselves to the brink of victory only to look back on a botched call, committed back when the Dodgers' lead seemed so large a win was a mere formality, to think what could have been.
They lit up Nationals Park in the eighth inning with six runs, but returned to the dugout crestfallen just minutes after Matt Kemp's solo home run opened the ninth inning and broke a 6-6 tie. Their magic numbers remained tantalizing small, but unmoved.
"That hurt," said closer Tyler Clippard, the 93-mph letter-high fastball that Kemp crushed into the Red Porch seats still baffling him. "It hurt tonight, big time. That was a huge momentum shift, there in the bottom of the eighth for us. I think everybody in the ballpark, including myself, felt like we were going to win this game tonight. It's even tougher to swallow knowing that I made the pitch I wanted to make and got hurt on it. What are going to do?"
One win will still get them into the playoffs but their lead over the Atlanta Braves in the NL East shrunk back to five games and their magic number to clinch it stayed at nine with the Braves beating the Miami Marlins.
But it was difficult to reconcile the end result, a split of the doubleheader and a long day of baseball, after they'd come so close. The Nationals, who won the first game 3-1, scored six runs in the eighth inning to turn a 6-0 blowout into a completely new affair. With three of their heaviest-hitting starters already on the bench Michael Morse homered to kick it off — and singled to tie it nine batters later.
Ian Desmond watched Morse's homer from the batters box, a tiny sliver of life in a game that had seemed to suck most of it from them innings earlier. He singled. Steve Lombardozzi homered. Corey Brown stood on second when his grounder baffled Adrian Gonzalez at first base. Mark DeRosa singled to right field. Bryce Harper beat out an infield roller. Danny Espinosa singled to left field. Morse came to the plate again.
"It was an awesome inning to be a part of," Morse said, playing for the first time in a week. "You think, ‘What if some of the other guys were still in the game during that inning?' That was one of the coolest innings I've been a part of on this team."
But as Clippard, working his second appearance of the day, watched Kemp's homer sail into the seats and wondered how it could've turned like that, it was all for naught. The Nationals lost for the fourth time in their last five games.
"I can't remember ever putting a ball in that spot and getting hurt like that in my whole career," Clippard said. "It's a tough one to swallow."
It seemed to line up so fittingly at the outset. John Lannan, a former Opening Day starter for the Nationals in years that ended far more ingloriously than they hope this one will, took the mound with a chance to be the man to help them clinch the team's first playoff berth.
But things unraveled quickly. Lannan labored through 3 2/3 innings, a departure from the three previous starts he'd made at the major league level this season, and back-to-back walks to Kemp and Gonzalez with two outs in the third inning proved to be his undoing in a three-run third.
Three more runs scored in the fourth, again with two outs. Chien-Ming Wang was summoned, uncorking his first major league pitch since June 30 into the dirt to bring home a fifth run.
He was saved a meltdown, perhaps, when Ryan Zimmerman made a dramatic stab of Hanley Ramirez's bouncer and managed to crawl quickly enough to tag Gonzalez on his way to third for the final out. The umpires awarded Kemp home plate, though, on a botched call by ruling Kemp, who was roughly 10 feet from the plate, had scored before Zimmerman's tag.
"They obviously blew the call," said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. "It wasn't reviewable. They all discussed it, and evidently nobody was paying attention. But Kemp wasn't running. He just wasn't running. The tag play was before. Obviously they missed it."
Catcher Jesus Flores said he heard home plate umpire Alan Porter say he'd thought the bases were loaded, though runners were only on second and third. "Terrible call," Flores said.
Even Kemp agreed, saying "That was close, I don't know if I made it or not." Informed by reporters that he did not, he shrugged. "Yeah, I don't think I did. We got lucky right there."
"You can't just give out free runs in the big leagues," Zimmerman said. "At the time I don't think anyone thought it was a really big deal (because we were down by five, and then six runs) but it turned out to be a big deal... It is what it is. It's over."
The Nationals say they have larger goals than the wild card. That the division crown is their only interest. But they were close to crossing off the first step, en route to the second. They denied that the thought even entered their minds. Thursday presenting just as good an opportunity to get past that hurdle. The wait will last at least one more day.
"That's not something we're really shooting for," Clippard said. "We're not shooting for a playoff spot. We're shooting to win a division. So regardless if we won tonight or not, that's not really where we want to be. We want to win our division."
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