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The Washington Nationals were one strike away from moving on to the NLCS to face the San Francisco Giants, but a blown lead in the top of the ninth ended the Nats' 2012 campaign and stunned a sold-out crowd in Nationals Park.
A night after what was perhaps the most dramatic win in D.C. baseball history, with every fan in the nation's capital either in attendance at Nationals Park as part of the record crowd of 45,966, watching on television, listening to the radio or following in any way they could, the Washington Nationals were one strike away from advancing to the NLCS. One strike away from beating the defending World Series Champions from St. Louis. One strike away. With a runner on third in a 7-5 game in the top of the ninth, Drew Storen, who'd surrendered a leadoff double but recorded two outs, couldn't get Cardinals' catcher Yadier Molina to bite on the same 2-2 slider Allen Craig had chased for out no.2. Molina spit on a 2-2 slider, and took another breaking ball for ball four and the seventh walk of the game issued by Nationals' pitchers.
Cards' third baseman David Freese was down 1-2, almost K'd on a check swing, but eventually walked, taking the eighth free pass of the game given to St. Louis. The walk Drew Storen issued to Freese loaded the bases with two down.
Bases loaded, two outs, but still 7-5 Nationals. One pitch later the game was tied. Daniel Descalso, described by Davey Johnson on Thursday as a ".220 hitter" who'd hit like "Rod Carew" the past few games, singled by Ian Desmond at short, just off Desmond's glove for a two-run hit. Tie game. 7-7. Storen got up 0-2 on Pete Kozma, then it was 2-2, then the 2-2 pitch got lined to right and two more runs came in. 9-7 St. Louis. Both runners that walked scored, Molina's pinch runner on the Descalso hit, Freese on Kozma's. By the time Storen got the Nats out of the top of the ninth he'd thrown 33 pitches, 18 for strikes.
In all, five of the eight Cardinals the Nationals' pitchers walked Friday night came around to score. An early 6-0 lead evaporated before the sold-out-and-then-some crowd inside Nationals Park. When the Cards finally took the lead the fans were stunned. Nationals Park fell silent in a moment. All at once. The finality of it hit long before Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman went down in order in the bottom of the inning. A long-suffering fanbase and city that was moments and one strike away from a seven-game NLCS with the San Francisco Giants was suddenly eliminated from the postseason.
"With all the adversity we've gone through this year," Davey Johnson said in a somber post game press conference, ".... and then to give up that many free passes, you know, that's not the way you win ballgames. It's a tough -- we've had a great year overcoming hardship and to not go after them at the end was not fun to watch."
"I think [Storen] felt like he was making good pitches," the Nats' skipper said, "But they were missing. I think he just tried to be too fine. He's got a great-moving, live fastball. Just need to throw it over. I mean, he wasn't alone. It seemed like Gio [Gonzalez] had the same problem. You just can't win big ballgames by giving free passes. You've got to trust your defense behind you. Go after them."
"We've been good all year. Just [had] a little hiccup here at the end."
Asked what he told his team after the stunning loss, the 69-year-old manager told reporters, "I just told them, you know, it was nothing to hang your head about. It was a great year. We overcame a lot of problems. We proved our worth and we just need to let this be a lesson and have some... learn from it, have more resolve, come back and carry it a lot farther."
As far as a message for the Nationals fans, who'd filled Nationals Park and hung on every pitch, embracing this team in a way you hadn't seen in years past, Johnson said simply, "I'm sorry. We'll make it up to them next year. It was a fun ride. A lot of character. I really enjoyed managing them this year."
"You know," Johnson said, "I've been on the other end of the stick, where just one out and you move on. We couldn't get it. We had the right people there. Just got a little too cautious."
One strike away.
"I mean, the guys did what they had to do to get to your closer," Johnson said, "a couple run lead, and you know, tying run is up, got two outs. You know, got to make'em earn it and unfortunately they did. You learn from it."
With that Davey Johnson stood up from his seat in front of the microphone and walked off the dais and back to the Nationals' clubhouse.