Not many expected the Washington Nationals to reach the postseason this year. The big push was meant to come in 2013, when Stephen Strasburg was off his innings limit and Bryce Harper had made his breakthrough into the big leagues. Well, sport doesn’t always go according to your best laid plans. Friday night was proof of that.
Let me say at the outset that the Nats had a great season, finishing with the best record in MLB, winning the NL East and making the postseason for the first time in D.C. Let me also say congratulations to the Cardinals, who proved that a game is never dead until the final out is recorded.
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Skipper Davey Johnson also had a great year, and will surely be rewarded with the Manager of the Year award (in addition to the one he received from our writers). On Friday though, he made three mistakes which played a big part in the outcome of the game.
Gio Gonzalez seemed to be going pretty well in the early stages. Better command on his fastball, good action on the curveball. He got through four innings giving up one run on three hits, walking one striking out five. Then it got ugly. Two hits and a walk loaded the bases, and after Jon Jay had popped up, Kurt Suzuki got one test too many. The catcher had been awesome in stopping erratic pitches throughout the series but was powerless to stop the run coming home. After Carlos Beltran drew the walk which loaded the bases, Gonzalez should have been pulled to salvage the situation. Even after inducing the soft return ground ball from Matt Holliday, Gonzalez softly tossed the ball to Suzuki, when a harder throw would have set up a double play at third base. The command and confidence had now drained from the Nationals postseason “ace” and it was no surprise when Allen Craig walked to force in the run. Why wasn’t Ryan Mattheus, who had only thrown 42 pitches in the series, and had Thursday off, brought in to face Craig?
Johnson’s next mistake came at the start of the seventh, when he made a call to the bullpen and asked for Edwin Jackson. I imagine the response sounded something like this: “You want us to send our most unpredictable, wild throwing pitcher who the opposition know everything about into the biggest game of the season which is beginning to slip away?” But take the mound he did, and the slide continued as he walked two and gave up a double and a run.
It still looked as if the Nationals would hold on and win ugly, even after Tyler Clippard gave up a run in the top of the eight, as Suzuki came up with a two-out RBI to put breathing space back. The stage looked set for Drew Storen to write himself into Nationals folklore. He did just that, sadly. Johnson sat in the dugout and watched as Storen loaded the bases with two out and then gave up the game-tying single. At that point, surely Storen had to be lifted? Jordan Zimmermann was the man to end the chaos and calm the Nationals down, right? Wrong. Just let Storen pitch on, whatever is going through his mind. It was no surprise to me when Pete Kozma hit the game-winning single in the next at-bat.
By that time, the three batters due up in the bottom of the ninth looked just as shocked as the rest of us. They went down easily in order with Harper looking like he just wanted to get the hell out of there, swinging at the three pitches he faced before the ball had left Jason Motte’s hand.
We had watched the dream start become a nightmare of epic proportions. Worse than that, we could all see it coming from the fifth inning, but could do nothing about it. Like a film where a person holding on to a loved one dangling over a cliff slowly loses grip and watches them crash into the rocks below. The defeat was crushing, worse than when the Expo’s lost in the ninth inning to the Dodgers in 1981. Comparisons have been drawn with the Washington Senators World Series game seven loss to the Pirates, who came back from 4-0 and 6-3 to win after scoring three in the eighth. The next season the Senators only won 81 games. The Nats will be hoping to better that bounce-back.
After all, 2013 was always meant to be the big year.