It was the top of the ninth, and the Nats were up 7-5. Yadier Molina was at the plate, faced with a situation that most of us dream of being in when we’re kids—down to their final strike with the entire season hanging in the balance.
Every one of the 46,000 fans at Nationals Park was on their feet as they had been since the start of the seventh inning. The crowd was loud, raucous, and energetic in manner that was exponentially greater than anything I’d ever experienced before. You could barely hear yourself think, let alone hear the sound of your own voice. Despite this, I turned to my friend Jeremy, and yelled, “One more strike!” I’m not entirely sure if he heard me or not, but I could tell he knew what I was saying. We were about to witness a Washington baseball team win their first playoff series since the Washington Senators beat the New York Giants to take the 1924 World Series in seven games. It was hard not getting caught up in the excitement.
The funny thing is neither Jeremy nor I were emotionally invested in the game when we got to the ballpark. In fact, we weren’t even planning on going to the game until an early morning text conversation started a hunt for reasonably decent tickets at a moderately crazy price. Believe me it was no easy task.
Despite not being Nationals fans, we felt we needed to be at the game. Maybe it was our mutual love for the game of baseball. Maybe it was a need to be a part of the playoff experience. Or maybe it was just that we wanted to go to the ballpark one last time this year. The reason was inconsequential. As fans of the Red Sox (me) and Cubs (Jeremy), both of our teams are mired in long rebuilding efforts. The Nationals provided us with an escape in our very own backyard.
As we looked down from our seats in section 234, which were situated directly down the right field line, Drew Storen was setting up for the pitch. Anticipation built up to nearly intolerable levels as he waited for him to fire the final nail in the Cardinals coffin. It was a slider, low and away. The count moved to 3-2. Kurt Suzuki fired the ball back to Storen, who quickly set back up. After a long look toward home plate, Storen fired another slider. This one missed badly above the zone. Molina walked. The crowd went silent just for a second before a chorus of boos filled in the silence. Adron Chambers was called in to pinch run.
Now, there were runners are on first and third with the go-ahead run stepping up to the plate. As luck would have it, last year’s World Series hero, David Freese, would get the opportunity to keep the Cardinals season alive. I looked over at Jeremy with a little trepidation and yelled, “This is the last guy I want to see up in this situation!” Yes, I know that 96 playoff plate appearances don’t mean much, but it’s really hard to ignore a 1.185 OPS during that stretch, even with people throwing small sample size caveats at you. He’d been scorching hot all series, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity for him to turn the tables. As Freese dug his feet into the batter’s box, the atmosphere was noticeably more tense, but still lively and optimistic. We still felt like the Nationals were going to win this thing.
Like Molina, Freese worked himself to a 2-2 count. Again, the Nationals were one strike away from advancing to the NLCS to face the San Francisco Giants. Storen set up and fired a 96 MPH four-seamer well off of the outside corner of the plate to bring the count to 3-2. A chorus of boos directed toward home plate umpire, Alfonso Marquez, emanated from my section and those around me. Everything was looking like a strike from our vantage point. We just want this to end. Storen set back up, and waited what felt like an eternity to fire his next offering–a 95 MPH sinker. Again, like the four-seamer before it, the sinker is well off of the outside corner of the plate. Freese walked to load the bases, and chaos ensued. Boos were now directed at both Marquez and Storen.
Next up was second baseman, Daniel Descalso. After hitting only four home runs and producing an anemic .627 OPS during 426 regular season plate appearances, Descalso was on a tear in the NLDS, hitting .316/.333/.685 with two home runs—including a solo shot just one inning prior. Surely, he couldn’t get another hit in this spot? Could he?
We didn’t have to wait long for an answer as Descalso lined a belt-high sinker positioned over the outside corner. Ian Desmond valiantly dove to field the ball, but it caromed off of his glove into shallow center. Beltran and Chambers scored, and Freese advanced to third base. The game was now tied at 7-7. An audible gasp of disbelief escaped from the mouths of the 46,000 fans.
As rookie shortstop, Pete Kozma, stepped to the plate, the crowd regrouped; everyone cheering in unison. While I can’t explain exactly why it felt this way, it was clear these cheers were different from the ones earlier in the ninth inning. These were guarded, and filled with dread. It was almost as if 46,000 people all knew what was about to happen next. After yet another 2-2 count for Storen, Kozma deposited a liner into the right field in front of Jayson Werth. Freese and Descalso both scored, giving the Cardinals an unimaginable 9-7 lead. I looked over at Jeremy in disbelief. Neither one of us said a word.
While Storen finally finished off the inning by mercifully striking out Cardinals closer, Jason Motte, the once exuberant crowd had fallen dead silent. The patrons’ facial expressions spoke volumes. They were ones of shock, horror, and confusion. After the Nationals had stormed off to an impressive 6-0 lead after three innings, victory seemed all but certain. Just one inning beforehand, people were hugging and high-fiving complete strangers. We stood with every two strike count. How could this have changed so quickly? This wasn’t the way this game was supposed to turn out!
Of course, as we’ll probably all forget with time is that the Nationals still had three outs to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. They failed miserably. Rather than work counts in hopes of getting on base, Werth, Bryce Harper, and Ryan Zimmerman appeared as if they were trying to make up the two-run deficit by themselves. Motte got Werth to weakly fly out to right after working an 0-2 count; induced a strikeout out of Harper who flailed wildly on a fastball at his eyes; and coaxed a pop-up out of Zimmerman to end the game. As the Cardinals players rushed the field to create a celebratory mosh pit between the pitcher’s mound and first base, 46,000 fans, once full of Natitude, stood silently and vacantly.
This postseason will always live under a cloud of uncertainty for the Nats. Many will openly question the organization’s decision to shutdown Stephen Strasburg in early September despite only pitching 159-1/3 innings. They’ll claim that it seems like the Nationals were “one pitcher away” from moving on to the next round. Perhaps, they’re right. Maybe Strasburg’s inclusion on the playoff roster changes the complexion of the series, and the Nationals move on instead of going home. I can’t deny that. Still, if we’re going to throw up hypothetical situations, we must also admit that it’s possible Strasburg bombs in the playoffs. Contrary to what some might lead you to believe, a Strasburg start did not guarantee a win. There are a number of star pitchers (and position players as well) throughout history who have failed in either individual starts or even entire postseasons. On any given day, any team can win.
As we slowly filed out of the stadium, I couldn’t help but reminisce about a few of the tragic losses in recent playoff history. Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS and NLCS where both the Red Sox and Cubs blew early leads, most notably came to mind. Two others came from Games 6 and 7 of last year’s World Series, in which the Rangers lost both games despite being on the cusp of winning it all.
And then, suddenly, it dawned on me. This is their signature loss. From here on out, Nats fans will talk about and remember last Friday night with unbelievable clarity. They’ll remember where they were; who they were with; and where they were sitting when it all came crashing down in the top of the ninth inning. These events will fundamentally change people as baseball fans. Serious fans will become diehards. Casual fans will become more invested. The thirst for playoff success will become more urgent. This is how it all starts. You don’t realize it now, but the pain you’ve endured will drive you forward. Congratulations, Nats fans. You’ve officially arrived. I’m just glad I was there to experience your watershed moment with you.