ST. LOUIS — The space around Edwin Jackson held great memories. Champagne showers. World Series triumphs. The height of his profession. But the reality he lived on Friday night was nothing of the sort.
The Washington Nationals needed Jackson at his best, their magic numbers tantalizingly low and the National League East crown dangling for them. Instead he found himself scraping the dirt off the mound with his right foot and wondering where things had gone so horribly wrong.
In a 12-2 blowout loss, Jackson lasted 1 ⅓ innings. He faced 15 batters and got four outs – including two on a double play by the opposing pitcher. Working from behind almost every batter, Jackson struggled with his command so mightily that in 56 pitches the same guy who has struck out 162 batters this season generated one swing and miss. Just one.
He walked four, threw two wild pitches, and finished his night by surrendering a rocket of a two-run homer to Yadier Molina and walking Carlos Beltran. As he handed the ball over and made his way off the mound, first baseman Adam LaRoche told the right-hander to "go inside and forget about this one. Act like it didn't happen."
"Today's game was just very disappointing and embarrassing," Jackson said. "When your club is in a pennant race and you have a game like that, it definitely leaves a bitter taste in your mouth that you did absolutely nothing to give your team a chance to win."
Their salvation showed on the scoreboard. A mix of greens and blues above the right field seats bearing, for the first time in a week, a bit of good news. New York Mets 3, Atlanta Braves 1.
"That was a beating, there," LaRoche said. "But we're obviously watching the scoreboard and the Braves finally lost a game this month so I guess we can take that as a positive.
"It's getting down to the wire. We know that. We obviously like our chances but nothing's done until it's sealed up. You're getting beat by 10 runs, you try to look at the positives in it. Forget about this one."
So as the Nationals were in the midst of their worst defeat of the 2012 season, their magic number to clinch the National League East crown dropped to a meager two. Their lead in the division remained unchanged at four with five to play, and they can rebound from their horrific series opener by dousing themselves in champagne in the visitors clubhouse by the time Saturday night comes to a close.
If the Nationals beat the Cardinals on Saturday and the Atlanta Braves lose to the Mets for the second straight day, D.C. will have a ticket into the National League Division Series and the real, bona-fide playoff spot they've been angling for all season.
It was a sliver of hope. A consolation for the Nationals after they watched the Cardinals cross home plate more times than they had seen any team in a game all season.
By the fifth inning, manager Davey Johnson was making wholesale changes to his lineup, subbing out Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper and Kurt Suzuki. Adam LaRoche and Ian Desmond quickly followed. At the end of the night the only regular playing was second baseman Danny Espinosa, who finished the game at shortstop.
"I just throw (this game) out," Johnson said, denying that this would affect Jackson's standing when it comes to crafting a postseason rotation. "I don't even want to talk about it."
Perhaps most discouraging, it continued a sub-par September for Jackson, the most veteran pitcher on the Nationals' starting staff and the only one with playoff experience. In five starts this month, Jackson has an 8.28 ERA and that's with the benefit of an eight-inning start his last time out in which he held the Milwaukee Brewers to just one run.
But in between Jackson's difficult beginning and a three-run eighth, capped with a two-run shot by Shane Robinson, the Nationals posted five straight scoreless innings with yeomans work from the bullpen. Bryce Harper doubled and scored in the first inning to give the Nationals what would end up being an extremely short-lived lead. And Roger Bernadina hit his fifth home run of the season into the right center field seats in the seventh inning.
But there wasn't much else for the Nationals to care to relive.
Corey Brown swung through strike three for the final out and they trudged quietly off the field. Tomorrow, perhaps, they will celebrate. Tomorrow, perhaps, they will earn the first of what they hope is multiple championships this season. For now all they had was their 62nd defeat.
"We can't afford to have anything linger," Jackson said, his next turn in the rotation scheduled for Wednesday in the Nationals' final game of the regular season, a game they hope will be inconsequential with regard to their playoff positioning. "The only thing we can do is look forward, take away what you could've done differently and continue to move on."
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