I saw a myriad of reactions immediately after the Game 5 loss. The man to my right slumped into his seat and repeatedly muttered, “one run.” The man to his right slammed the chair in front of him and shouted some expletives. The child to my left, whose favourite player is Gio Gonzalez, was red-faced and tears dripped off his chin onto his mother’s red t-shirt. They travelled down from Pittsburgh for this game. Yet, through all of this, there was an undercurrent of, “We saw this coming.” The Nationals played right into the “postseason chokers” narrative.
1) The big moments never come in elimination games.
Elimination games have never been kind to the Nationals. Their first one gave rise to the Werthquake, only to be beaten down by “Cardinals devil magic” the following day. In 2014, Matt Williams made bad choices the whole way through, and you can blame him or Drew Storen or any member of the team which lost that series 3-1. Last year, they were outmatched and outdueled by the Dodgers.
This year was supposed to be different.
There were no Kozmas or Kershaws to rise from the ashes of probability. Max Scherzer does not have to respect Anthony Rizzo and Stephen Strasburg handed Kris Bryant a couple sombreros. Bryce Harper was Henry V and Game 5 was Agincourt.
This year was supposed to be different, but instead we got more of the same.
The problem for the Nationals is that they are too good. They don’t suck enough for these losses to be acceptable. That struggle has given rise to the narrative that they are not built for October. The narrative that they lose it, they choke, they crumble. It’s true, there is a difference between being built to win ninety games and winning in the postseason. It is a 162 game-long war culminating in a series of rushed battles where chemistry and “clutchness” matter more than the fundamentals of baseball that carry a team to this point. October 12th was supposed to be St. Crispin’s Day, and instead we got Dunsinane.
2) A team-wide implosion.
The Nationals choked, again, and I am still trying to wrap my head around it. In my heart, I knew this was likely Jayson Werth’s final game as a National. He retreated toward the dugout to a chorus of boos after striking out during his final plate appearance in that uniform. How ironic. How sad. Oh, how the “baseball gods” delight in tragedies. The man who gave this franchise its credibility will leave after seeing its October credibility collapse.
The Nationals still have not climbed that mountain, even with the best pitchers in the league. Even with the game’s biggest name. Even with a well-structured bullpen and the chemistry all other iterations of this team had missed, the Washington Nationals couldn’t find their way to the Championship Series with a map and flashlight.
I am sad. Are you sad? Doesn’t matter, I am disappointed enough for all of us. I thought watching the Nationals’ postgame interviews would make me feel better. It didn’t. I keep referencing Henry V, and he says “Men of few words are the best men.” I disagree. Watching this team, glazed eyes and downcast expressions, they felt inauthentic. People flock to the Cubs because of their authenticity and emotion, which the Nationals lack in favour of K Street professionalism. I wanted the players to express the anger and disappointment I feel. Which is unfair, I suppose they will process this on their own as I am doing now. But still ... none of them offered an explanation. “That was the craziest game I’ve ever been part of” does not cut it.
Why does this keep happening? It’s not Dusty Baker’s fault Matt Wieters dropped the ball. It is not Wieters’s fault Jerry Layne doesn’t understand the rules about backswings. It is not Jerry Layne’s fault that Max Scherzer gave up two-out hits. It’s not Max’s fault that Jayson Werth lost a ball in the lights. It is not Werth’s fault José Lobatón’s foot popped off the base. There is not a specific moment that turned the game; all of it could have been avoided. That is where the frustration really stems from: it was a team-wide implosion.
3) Monday morning managing.
Let’s not forget Tanner Roark, who never touched the mound in this series. Oh, and Howie Kendrick, who deserved better. Do not forget (the ray of sunshine that is) Wilmer Difo, who became well-acquainted with the on-deck circle. And Brian Goodwin’s one inning in left field was uneventful. Why didn’t Dusty use the bench? Your guess is as good as mine.
The Nationals got beaten by a closer who threw over sixty pitches in two days. Wade Davis for MVP after that nonsense. When he’s up that much he’s exhausted. Batters needed to take pitches. They were aggressive at the wrong times against Davis and not aggressive enough against Hendricks in Game 1. Nats hitters never made in-game adjustments, and if they did they were ineffective.
4) What’s next?
Next year. How are we already talking about next year? Why is it always so gosh darn early? As a Cardinals fan, I rejoiced in the Nationals’ 2012 loss. Now though, my heart is with this team, too. I am shocked and sad and part of me does not want to emotionally invest in a team that in all likelihood will have the same result next season. I hate knowing Jayson Werth deserves more than this. I hate watching the career seasons of Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon go to waste. I want to pull my STL beanie over my eyes and never look at Nats Park again. It genuinely felt like this was the Game 5 everyone in the stadium would fondly recount years from now over brunch with “I was there” stories.
I wanted for that little kid to see Gio Gonzalez celebrate on the field.
Living near the ballpark, it is impossible to escape reminders of the games that will not be played. It can be seen in the “LET’S GO NATS!” signs lining the construction area on the walk to Nandos. The sky reflected my mood: bleak and dreary. The postseason meltdown perfectly encapsulated by the shredded rally towel discarded in the grass, ripped between “one” and “pursuit.”
Yet, I will still cozy into my Curly W sweatshirt. I’ll make plans to go to spring training and anxiously await to see whether Michael A. Taylor hits as well next season. There is a quote from Kahlil Gibran that sums up where I am at right now:
“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain ... When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”
I named Wilmer Difo just that: a delight. We had 162 exciting games! Not all of them were joyful, but 97 of them were. There was more elation than heartache, and can we ask for much more in a sport that can somewhow be this cruel? The only reason I feel sorrow this deep is because of the love and joy I experienced alongside this team throughout the season. And I will do it again next year.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends!
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Audrey Stark is a Contributor at Federal Baseball. You can follow her on Twitter @HighStarkSunday.