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.
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."
Maybe Johnson felt Wang would give him the best chance to squeeze innings out of his bullpen without taxing his primary relievers. "I don't try to put my best foot forward when we're down," he said, acknowledging as much.
Whatever the reason, it was difficult to imagine the most important game to date in the team's brief history going worse.
"We just lost," Espinosa said. "Didn't play the cleanest game in the world. I don't think it's going to bring us down or anything. ... It's just another loss.
"Yeah, we were hoping to clinch today. But we'll do it [Monday]."
The Cardinals took advantage of Detwiler's shaky command in the second, opening with back-to-back walks. "I was either spiking it or throwing it in the other batter's box," Detwiler said. "I think it's just trying to do too much."
An error by Espinosa then turned a potential double play into a bases-loaded situation on a ball that, "I make 999 times out of 1,000 and I wasn't able to come through," he said.
An RBI double, an RBI single and Beltran's first two-run shot of the day helped stake St. Louis to a 5-0 lead.
"The pitcher's got to pick [Espinosa] up," Johnson said. "We've just got to make pitches. Pick him up. Our defense has been second-to-none."
Wang's first pitch in the third was wild, allowing the runners he inherited to advance. His second pitch was wild, allowing one runner to score and another to move to third. His fifth pitch was hit to left field for an out that scored another run. Suddenly the deficit was 7-0. By the time Wang was done, a 7-4 deficit was 9-4.
The parade of relievers who followed him, scoreless innings from Craig Stammen, Christian Garcia and one from Zach Duke before a one-run eighth, made Wang's use in the third and fourth even more puzzling.
"I was hoping to get a little more out of him and save my pen," Johnson said.
They left Nationals Park six days ago with the possibility of clinching. They returned there late Sunday night in the same place, though closer now.
"We just want to do it," said Desmond. "It doesn't matter where it's at. It'll be nice to just get it out of the way. But at the same time we've got to play the type of baseball we know we're capable of playing and we didn't do that today. Bounce back tomorrow."
Forty-one years ago Sunday, the Washington Senators were on their way out of town. A finale was played at RFK Stadium, and fans stormed the field in the ninth inning making the last few moments of the Senators era a forfeit to the New York Yankees. It was the anniversary of a bitter ending.
The Nationals couldn't yet erase that memory.
"This was for all the fans back in D.C.," Detwiler said, a slight smile giving him a brief reprieve from an otherwise sullen interview. "Wanted them to see the team clinch."
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