An­other bit­ter end for the Na­tion­als

Mis­ery has plenty of com­pany — again — for D.C. sports fans as the Nats fall

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY BARRY SVRLUGA

This Thurs­day evening started in the mist and ended in a mess, and the ed­u­cated Wash­ing­ton fan could have told you that when he or she woke up. The Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als played a game to ex­tend their sea­son. They lost that game. Their sea­son is over. Those with strong stom­achs, read fur­ther. The rest: See you in spring.

By the stan­dards of a nor­mal town, the fash­ion in which all this hap­pened at Na­tion­als Park was bizarre — fun­house mir­ror weird, baseball as a Dali paint­ing. Here, in strait-laced Wash­ing­ton, it fits into the ath­letic fab­ric per­fectly. The pat­tern, by now, is well-es­tab­lished. Wash­ing­ton might be able to muster op­ti­mism on a morn­ing such as Thurs­day. It might, over lunch, con­vince it­self of this ad­van­tage or that.

But get through the gate at the ball­park, and dread is so read­ily avail­able. The con­ces­sion­aires slip it between the hot dog and the bun, mix it into the car­bon­ated bev­er­ages, slide it into the pro­grams. By now, ba­bies here are born with it, in­grained.

The fi­nal score at Na­tion­als Park, in the fifth and de­ci­sive game of this Na­tional League Di­vi­sion Se­ries: Chicago Cubs 9, Nats 8. The Cubs, cham­pi­ons a year ago, fly to Los An­ge­les to face the Dodgers for the right to reach the World Se­ries. The Na­tion­als failed to win a play­off se­ries — again — the fourth time in the past six years they have reached this stage and taken a crow­bar across the knees.

So on this night, ev­ery­thing we have learned about Wash­ing­ton sports over the past gen­er­a­tion was re­in­forced, with ar­gu­ments about whether the an­guish caused by the Na­tion­als now out­does that caused by foot­ball’s Red­skins, bas­ket­ball’s Wizards or hockey’s Cap­i­tals. Dis­cuss among your­selves. We’ve got all win­ter.

But in break­ing down this par­tic­u­lar evening — when the Na­tion­als once held a three-run lead — con­sider the sim­plic­ity of

this: The Na­tion­als en­tered the fifth in­ning with a 4-3 ad­van­tage and handed the ball to Max Scherzer, who might well win his third Cy Young Award this year as his league’s best pitcher. When Scherzer left the mound at the end of that frame, the Nats trailed 7-4.

Slice open that in­ning and ex­am­ine the parts, and the true Wash­ing­ton na­ture of this loss is re­vealed. Four straight Cubs reached base in un­con­ven­tional ways, some known only to true baseball seam heads — an in­ten­tional walk, a strike­out with a passed ball (about which there was some con­tro­versy), catcher’s in­ter­fer­ence and a hit bats­man. The web­site baseball-ref­er­ence. has 2.73 mil­lion half-in­nings in its data­base. None of them con­tain those four events — let alone from four con­sec­u­tive hit­ters.

The things that hap­pened Thurs­day night, they haven’t hap­pened in the his­tory of baseball. Yet they hap­pened to the Na­tion­als in what was to be their big­gest, best night. As an or­ga­ni­za­tion, the Nats faced a game that could push them to ter­ri­tory they have not tra­versed. They have only played 13 sea­sons in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal, and part of their fran­chise his­tory is tied to Mon­treal, where they were born as the Ex­pos in 1969. They filled a gap here, baseball’s 33-year ab­sence, and so for the first few years, there was joy in their mere ex­is­tence.

Since they be­came suc­cess­ful by win­ning their first di­vi­sion ti­tle in 2012, the Na­tion­als had adopted the ways of Wash­ing­ton’s other pro­fes­sional teams. Or those ways had adopted them. It’s hard to tell.

When Wash­ing­ton start­ing pitcher Gio Gon­za­lez gave up a dou­ble to the Cubs’ first bat­ter of the night, then threw a pitch to the back­stop to al­low him to ad­vance to third, Na­tion­als Park grew quiet — and not oddly at all. This is the ten­sion that now ac­com­pa­nies th­ese events in this town. Many of the play­ers on the field may not have been a part of such events ear­lier, though Gon­za­lez him­self was the start­ing in a Game 5 five years ago. But many of the fans, they were here.

So the crowd of 43,849 car­ried past pain with it, a 6-0 lead against St. Louis in that fifth game in 2012, five years ago to the night. It’s nights like th­ese when, in Wash­ing­ton, lit­tle-known names such as Pete Kozma, a pesky, light-hit­ting in­fielder for the Car­di­nals, be­come in­fa­mous. Kozma’s crime against the District: a tiebreak­ing sin­gle in the ninth in­ning, killing those Nats, pro­vid­ing the foun­da­tion for a past filled with pain.

“You can’t put that pres­sure on you,” Na­tion­als Man­ager Dusty Baker said be­fore the game. “You try to sim­plify the pres­sure that, ‘Hey, we’ve got to win one game, re­gard­less of if you’ve never won a se­ries.”

The prob­lem for some of those peo­ple who hauled all that pain to the park Thurs­day night is that, around here, it’s not just the Nats. Na­tive Wash­ing­to­ni­ans in their 40s and their 60s re­mem­ber a time — what a time — when win­ning and their home town weren’t ad­ver­saries. But the chil­dren here, they had known noth­pitcher ing but ab­ject dis­ap­point­ment.

So spit out all the stats again be­cause they in­form the mood of the crowd at any Wash­ing­ton sport­ing gath­er­ing with the stakes of Thurs­day. The Red­skins were once a model NFL fran­chise, win­ners of three Su­per Bowl ti­tles, the last of which came fol­low­ing the 1991 sea­son. They haven’t played for a con­fer­ence cham­pi­onship — a game from the Su­per Bowl — since.

The Wizards (nee Bul­lets) won the NBA cham­pi­onship in 1978, reached the fi­nals a year later, and haven’t re­turned to the con­fer­ence fi­nals since. The 1997-98 Cap­i­tals made the Stan­ley Cup fi­nals in hockey and have three times fin­ished with the best reg­u­lar sea­son record in the NHL. Yet four times in the ca­reer of Alex Ovechkin, the best player in fran­chise his­tory, the Cap­i­tals have faced a do-or-die game in which a vic­tory would have pushed them into the con­fer­ence fi­nals. They lost each time.

The teams, they share that link.

“Some­times, the rep­u­ta­tion of the town in other sports — bas­ket­ball, you hear about it,” Baker said. “In hockey, you hear about it. Just dif­fer­ent things. So you have to dis­pel those neg­a­tive thoughts on your mind and just say, ‘Hey, it will be us.’ ”

But it hasn’t been, not for years. So we go to th­ese games, and we write th­ese sen­tences, and we move the ad­jec­tives around, and we con­sult the th­e­saurus. But re­ally, it’s some ver­sion of the same story. The char­ac­ters change, if only slightly. But the feel­ing, walk­ing back to the Metro or the park­ing lot, is the same.

The most stun­ning col­lapse Thurs­day came with Scherzer on the mound. A start­ing pitcher by trade, he was in the bullpen for Game 5 — even though he had started Mon­day’s Game 3 in Chicago — be­cause of the na­ture of the event. He had told Baker he could have pitched an in­ning Wed­nes­day, but the Nats didn’t need him be­cause Stephen Stras­burg threw so bril­liantly in a 5-0 vic­tory. That he got the first two outs and then al­lowed four runs — it’s not con­ceiv­able.

What fits bet­ter in the Wash­ing­ton sports psy­che: that the Na­tion­als played their slop­pi­est game of the se­ries, fell be­hind 8-4 — and yet still had a chance to win it in the late in­nings.

In the eighth, cen­ter fielder Michael A. Tay­lor — a hero in Game 4, when he hit a grand slam — drilled a two-out sin­gle up the mid­dle, scor­ing Daniel Mur­phy with the run that made it 9-8. Jose Lo­ba­ton, the light-hit­ting backup catcher, fol­lowed with a sin­gle to keep the rally alive.

And then, dis­as­ter. With lead­off man Trea Turner at the plate, Cubs catcher Will­son Con­tr­eras, blessed with an un­godly arm, threw to first in an at­tempt to pick off Lo­ba­ton. The um­pire ini­tially called him safe, but the Cubs asked for a video re­view. Af­ter con­sul­ta­tion with of­fi­cials in New York, Lo­ba­ton was ruled out.

So D.C., you thought. So &$%#@! D.C. We might not have known the par­tic­u­lars. But we knew what was go­ing to hap­pen. Dread is in the air here. Deep breaths, ev­ery­one. Deep breaths.

JONATHAN NEW­TON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

CUBS 9, NA­TION­ALS 8: Catcher Will­son Con­tr­eras be­gins the cel­e­bra­tion for the vis­i­tors at Na­tion­als Park as Bryce Harper strikes out to end the game — and Wash­ing­ton’s sea­son — in a wild marathon of a game. The Nats have lost in the Na­tional League Di­vi­sion Se­ries four times in the past six years. Chicago will face the Los An­ge­les Dodgers in the NLCS. More cov­er­age on­line at wash­ing­ton­post.com/sports

KATHER­INE FREY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Will­son Con­tr­eras scored on a wild pitch from Nats starter Gio Gon­za­lez on a wild night in Game 5.

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