Associated Press photo
Drew Storen sits motionless at his locker after taking the loss in Game 5.
The remnants of a celebration that was supposed to happen lingered throughout a surreal clubhouse scene, plastic tarps either torn down in haste or left to hang from the ceiling, a temporary carpet covering the majority of the room so the regular flooring wouldn't get ruined amid the jubilee.
Somewhere out of public view, cases of champagne and beer bottles had been stashed away, removed from the premises before the participants could see them. A TV crew that had been in place and ready to broadcast the pandemonium raced to clear out of the room and hustle down the hallway to the visitors clubhouse, where the actual celebration would occur.
All that remained inside the Nationals' oval-shaped office was silence, punctuated by the occasional slap of players and coaches hugging each other and saying their goodbyes for the winter.
Baseball "is designed to break your heart," former commissioner Bart Giamatti once wrote, but the Nationals' 9-7 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 of the National League Division Series was less about heartbreak and more about heartburn, the sting of a never-been-seen turn of events too fresh in everyone's minds to allow for emotion to take over.
"There's a bad taste in my mouth," Drew Storen said. "That's gonna stay there for a couple of months. And it's probably never going to leave."
Ultimate responsibility for the largest blown lead in a winner-take-all ballgame in major-league history fell on Storen, who twice was one strike away from locking up a 7-5 victory and propelling the Nationals into a National League Championship Series date with the San Francisco Giants, yet allowed four runs in the top of the ninth via three hits and two walks to re-write the script.
But make no mistake: Storen's performance was only the final piece of the Nationals' slow death in this decisive game.
There was an inability to muster much of any offense after exploding for six early runs. There was an inability by starter Gio Gonzalez to pitch deep enough into the game to allow Davey Johnson to use his bullpen the way he would have preferred. There was the manager's on-the-fly decisions with his pitching staff, summoning relievers who had never been used quite like this in an attempt to close out the game and the series. And there were more runs surrendered by some of those relievers, giving Storen less room to breathe when he did finally get the ball for the ninth.
"We're all in the same boat right now," said Tyler Clippard, who served up Daniel Descalso's homer in the eighth. "Obviously Drew feels bad. I feel bad. We're all pretty devastated right now."
Storen, in the end, needed only one more strike. One measly strike to finish off what would have been a stirring victory and given the record crowd of 45,966 reason to ignite a celebration not experienced in Washington in three generations.
And he had five opportunities to throw that final strike, reaching a 2-2 count to Yadier Molina with two out and one on in the ninth and then a 1-2 count to David Freese moments later with two men now on base. Each time, Storen just missed with pitches that could theoretically have been called strikes by umpire Alfonso Marquez but clearly were out of the zone.
"They're good hitters," Storen said. "That's what makes them good: They have quality takes. It is what makes them successful."
"I really don't know what we would have done differently, to tell you the truth," catcher Kurt Suzuki said. "You tip your hat. They never give up. They've done it before."
They certainly have. These Cardinals staved off elimination four times last fall before winning their 11th World Series championship, and they've now done it twice in the last week, keeping their hopes of a repeat run alive.
They manage to do it year in and year out behind the performances of not only superstars but role players like Descalso and Pete Kozma, the middle infielders who capped this stunning rally with back-to-back, two-run singles off Storen.
Descalso's game-tying hit was a hard grounder up the middle, off a diving Ian Desmond's glove and into center field.
"He hit it good," Desmond said. "I did the best I could to get my glove on it. I didn't get it."
Kozma's game-winner was a poke down the right-field line, another two-run single that completed the rally and left the Nationals and their crowd in stunned silence.
"It's a crazy game," said Ryan Zimmerman, who wound up making the final out of the Nationals' season. "This game has taught us a lot. And one of the things it's taught us is to never take anything for granted. Nothing's over til it's over. You have to give that team over there some credit."
There is no shame in losing a best-of-five series to the defending champs, a veteran-laden team that has every reason to believe it can make another deep run. But the manner in which this series was lost and this 100-win season (98 in the regular season, two more in the playoffs) ended won't be easy for the Nationals to forget.
"This is not how I wanted my year to end," said rookie Bryce Harper, who four days shy of his 20th birthday recorded his first career postseason homer and triple. "I definitely wanted to play deeper into the postseason. I'm not ready to go home and take off that uniform."
Despite their dominating record, the Nationals never did do much in easy fashion. So it was perhaps appropriate that the decisive showdown of a meat grinder of this NLDS proved to be the most harrowing of the Nationals' 167 games to date in 2012.
That the outcome of this game was left to be decided late was remarkable in and of itself, considering the way the Nationals stormed out of the gates to take what appeared to be a commanding lead.
If there was any question whether it's possible to ride momentum from one ballgame into another, the Nationals certainly appeared to answer that in definitive fashion to start Game 5. After Gonzalez got through a scoreless top of the first, the top of the Nationals lineup put an immediate hurting on Adam Wainwright.
Seven pitches in, Wainwright had served up a double to Jayson Werth, an RBI triple to Harper and a two-run homer to Zimmerman that left the sellout crowd roaring nearly as loud as it did for Werth's walk-off heroics in Game 4.
And the Nationals didn't let up against the veteran right-hander, posting three more runs in the bottom of the third, ignited by none other than the youngest player on the field.
Harper had struggled throughout the series, looking every bit like a 19-year-old overwhelmed by the bright lights of a stage he had never seen before. But manager Davey Johnson has known all along Harper has too much talent and ability to thrive in big moments to be held down for long, so he stuck with the rookie despite his 1-for-18 numbers.
And sure enough, the kid delivered when it really counted, crushing a pitch from Wainwright deep into the right-field bleachers top open the bottom of the third. In the process, Harper joined Andruw Jones as the only teenagers ever to hit a postseason homer.
And still the Nationals weren't done. A Zimmerman double kept the pressure on, and two batters later, Michael Morse (who had looked feeble at the plate through most of the series, still battling a wrist injury) destroyed a first-pitch fastball from Wainwright into the left-field bleachers.
The scoreboard read 6-0, the home dugout exploded and the sellout crowd went bezerk, perhaps some in the ballpark beginning to research airfares to San Francisco for Games 3 through 5 of the NLCS.
Anyone who watched the Nationals all season, however, knew it was never quite that easy. This team had been known to burst out of the gates, then go stone-cold silent at the plate for inning after inning. Which is precisely what happened. They may have knocked out Wainwright after 2 1/3 innings, but the Nationals proceeded to make 10 straight outs against the St. Louis bullpen.
"We talked about it during the game: We were up six runs, but we said we need to keep it going," cleanup hitter Adam LaRoche said. "As good as our pen is, we need to keep pouring it on and doing what we can."
All the while, Gonzalez began to morph into his Game 1 self, especially during a harrowing fifth inning in which the lefty issued three walks and a wild pitch, letting two runs score in the process.
Gonzalez did come through with a couple of big pitches when he needed them most, inducing a comebacker from Matt Holliday with the bases loaded and one out, then getting Molina to fly out to right to end the inning and leave the bases loaded. But at 99 pitches, his night was over, forcing manager Davey Johnson to try to coax four innings from a bullpen that had to once again be pieced together in last-minute fashion.
That included a surprise appearance by Game 3 starter Edwin Jackson in the top of the seventh, resulting in one run. It included Clippard in the eighth, resulting in another run on Descalso's homer into the right-field bullpen.
And it included Storen in the ninth, entrusted with a 7-5 lead that felt safe at the time but quickly turned tenuous as the right-hander struggled to keep the ball over the plate, producing two of the eight walks issued by Washington pitchers in the game.
"With all the adversity we've gone through this year, and then to give up that many free passes," Johnson sighed, "that's not the way you win ballgames. It's tough. We've had a great year overcoming a lot of hardship, and to not go after them at the end was not fun to watch."
Especially the painful ninth inning, as Storen tried in vain five times to make the one pitch that would send the Nationals deeper into the postseason and send the crowd into pandemonium.
That pitch never came. And because what ensued happened in such rapid-fire fashion, the Nationals were left to gather in silence in a clubhouse that had been prepped for a celebration but had suddenly been transformed into a room full of hugs, red eyes and farewells for the winter.
"It's always tough when you can see the finish line and taste it and you're an out or two, or a pitch or two, away and you don't win it," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "It's a testament to this game. You've got to get all 27 outs before you can pack up the bats. And especially against a club as playoff-tested and battle-tested as those guys over there. ...
"We don't know what to do tomorrow. It's Saturday, and we don't have a game."