- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 30, 2012

ST. LOUIS — If there was one image the Washington Nationals may remember from a game they would surely love to forget, it was of Carlos Beltran. Standing on the top step of the St. Louis Cardinals‘ dugout after his second two-run homer of the game, Beltran reveled in a curtain call while Chien-Ming Wang stood emotionless on the mound.

As their champagne remained on ice, the questions the moment elicited seemed endless. How had they reached this point? What had happened to their golden opportunity, their moment of glory? Where had their division title-clinching game gone so bad?

The Nationals stood on the brink of sealing the National League East crown Sunday morning. They took an entire season of baseball, 159 games of work and luck and more victories than any team in the major leagues to that point and reduced it to a simple truth: win, and the division was theirs.

Then they lost 10-4 to the Cardinals in a beatdown that got ugly early.

They pushed their quest one more day, back to D.C., back in front of their home crowd and with John Lannan, the team’s longest-tenured pitcher, on the mound against the Phillies. As melancholy as they seemed as their long-awaited celebration stayed packed another day, they came back to that fact.

St. Louis Cardinals' Carlos Beltran (3) is congratulated by teammates in the dugout after hitting a two-run home run during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Washington Nationals, Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012, in St. Louis. The home run was Beltran's second of the day. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
St. Louis Cardinals’ Carlos Beltran (3) is congratulated by teammates in the ... more >

Their position, one third baseman Ryan Zimmerman called “the best position to be in” just a night earlier, hadn’t changed.

“Get home, get in front of that home crowd, get some home cooking and get back in business tomorrow,” said shortstop Ian Desmond.

“I like clinching at home, in front of the home fans,” said manager Davey Johnson. “That’s nice.”

But first they had to digest what transpired on the field at Busch Stadium, the debacle that was their first attempt to get their dogpile.

There were plenty of places to look to find answers: Ross Detwiler, the hometown kid, struggling to throw strikes; the room-service double-play ball that fell out of their second baseman’s glove; the reclamation right-hander who’s spent more of his Nationals career making rehab starts than major league ones and won’t make the playoff roster — but was the first man out of the bullpen.

Or the rally that died in the fourth inning when the Nationals scored four runs, had Cardinals right-hander Lance Lynn on the ropes after Bryce Harper and Danny Espinosa crushed home runs, and allowed that right-hander, Wang, to hit with two outs and a runner on first base.

Maybe Detwiler came out tight, the immensity of the moment overwhelming him. Johnson thought it might’ve, Detwiler brushed off the suggestion.

Maybe he simply couldn’t execute against a team that is 31-17 against left-handed starters. Couldn’t regroup when his arm slot deserted him in a five-run second inning.

“I didn’t throw any strikes,” Detwiler said. “Walked, what, five people? I don’t think you’ll have much success doing that.

“I don’t really care that it was [in my hometown] or anything, that’s whatever. But that I had a chance to be the guy to clinch, that’s the biggest thing.”

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