- The Washington Times - Friday, October 3, 2014

The clubhouse stereo was alone with its lights blinking and no sound coming out. There was no music to play or joy to be had, and even if the players tried to cue up the stereo, it likely would play only part of a song before being derailed Friday night.

After catapulting into the end of the regular season behind a no-hitter and the best record in the National League, the Washington Nationals find themselves behind the steady San Francisco Giants, 1-0, in a best-of-five series. Friday’s long afternoon of “almost” had produced a 3-2 loss and turned Saturday into a day of desperation.

Red carpet flanked by red velvet ropes hanging from silver stands showed the players the path out of the dugout for pregame introductions. “Postseason 2014” arced in front of the dugouts in white letters painted into the grass. Fans dressed in red trickled out of the Navy Yard metro stop toward the center field gate during the meandering start to a weekday with first pitch scheduled for 3:07 p.m. A seven-member band played. Fifteen feet away, a lone man tried find his niche and donations with a steel drum.

A post-national anthem flyover from two fighter jets acted as a system shock. Fans rotated white towels with “Nothing but Natitude” printed on them. The pregame hubbub largely centered on Tim Hudson’s “between the legs” comment gave way to actual baseball.

The Giants pecked at Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg. He allowed eight singles in five innings. The Washington offense was dormant during that time. Its first hit came on Bryce Harper’s fifth-inning infield single.

That was finally a nudge for those nodding off since the Nationals trailed, 2-0, at the time. The National League’s third-highest scoring offense could hardly muster a baserunner. But, a double play followed by a foul pop ended the inning.


SEE ALSO: LOVERRO: Not to put too ‘fine’ a point on it: Strasburg not good enough in Game 1


Finally, pressure from the Nationals came in the sixth. A double from pinch-hitter Nate Schierholtz began the inning. Ian Desmond walked to the plate with the bases loaded. In came Hunter Strickland.

Strickland was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in 2007. He was traded two years later to the Pittsburgh Pirates in a deal for Adam LaRoche. The Pirates designated Strickland for assignment in March of 2013. The Giants signed and sent him to Class A ball. In October of 2014 he was standing on the mound to face Ian Desmond with the bases loaded.

Desmond had not faced him before, though he was a 8-for-12 this season with the bases loaded. Strickland threw a 100-mph fastball by Desmond for the third strike and third out. The Nationals‘ best chance of the day was squelched.

“Wasn’t able to get it done,” Desmond said.

That was not the case for Harper. Strickland tried the same muscular attack with him next inning. The 97-mph fastball Strickland threw Harper in a 2-1 count landed 445 feet away in the right field third deck. Harper zoomed around the bases. The park awoke.

“Things were pretty stagnant at that time, we didn’t have a whole lot going,” LaRoche said. “All of a sudden we’re finally on the board. It gives guys a little extra juice. Then you got the second home run following that, then we’re right back in it. We’re one swing away then.”

The second home run was Asdrubal Cabrera also hitting a solo shot to right off Strickland. It set up the first moment for Ryan Zimmerman this postseason.

Nationals manager Matt Williams said prior to the series he would use Zimmerman to matchup off the bench. In the sixth, when LaRoche came up and left-handed reliever Javier Lopez came in, Zimmerman stayed on the upper bench just behind the dugout rail.

It was fair to wonder if Williams would send Zimmerman, still recovering from a hamstring tear, to the plate after the announcement of Lopez’s presence. LaRoche was 0-for-9 with eight strikeouts in his career against Lopez. Zimmerman remained reclined. LaRoche walked to set up Desmond.

When Zimmerman was sent out in the seventh, the park roared. Strickland doused the excitement by getting him to fly out to center. Too good to be true remained just that.

Two more baserunners in the eighth and another chance for Desmond. Movement derailed him this time, not power. Former Giants closer Sergio Romo now operates as the San Francisco setup man. His sweeping sliders eluded Desmond. The tying run, the leap over the ever-growing hump, eluded the Nationals after Desmond’s second strikeout of the day.

It also tightened the vice. This year is not supposed to be like 2012. That was a younger team Nationals team, not sure what to expect in the playoffs. They lost in the first round to an experienced St. Louis Cardinals group despite being the top seed.

The Giants have won the World Series twice in the last four seasons. The numbers are not with them now, though their manager, Bruce Bochy, and Friday’s starter, Jake Peavy are twice-boiled grizzle unconcerned with any narrative about what the Nationals are supposed to be in these playoffs.

Which brings Saturday. Jordan Zimmermann, who had a 1.32 ERA in September, will pitch for the Nationals. He’s coming off the organization’s first no-hitter.

Hudson will pitch for the Giants. He has pitched in the majors for 16 seasons.

“It’s no secret to me what they’re about, it’s no secret to them what I’m about,” Hudson said.

In the quiet of the clubhouse, Harper was faced with an issue he didn’t want to contemplate. Losing the opener puts enormous pressure on Saturday. If the Nationals lose again, they will be down 0-2 when they climb the steps onto a cross-country flight. Slinging left-hander Madison Bumgarner, the Giants‘ ace, will be waiting for them.

“We have to win that game tomorrow, definitely,” Harper said. “That’s a must-win, I think. To be able to go 1-1 into San Fran is going to be huge. If we go 0-2 going into San Fran, that’s something I don’t even want to think about.”

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