WASHINGTON – Drew Storen sat at his locker, staring straight ahead. Whatever solo thoughts he had were frequently interrupted by teammates offering hugs, sympathy and encouragement.
Making the rounds in the clubhouse, meanwhile, was part-owner Mark Lerner, son of principal owner Ted Lerner. Mark Lerner patted players on the shoulder and shook their hands. He wiped a tear from his eye as he spoke to slugger Michael Morse.
"Someone just said to me, 'We've learned to win now,'" Lerner said. "And that's no easy task."
The Washington Nationals did indeed bring winning baseball back to the nation's capital at long last. They also collapsed in the postseason in a way that will be tough to forget.
The Nationals' historic season came to an end Friday night with a 9-7 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 of the NL division series. Washington sported the best record in baseball during the regular season, but the newfangled "Natitude" of a roster flush with young postseason neophytes blew a six-run lead against the experienced club that won the World Series a year ago.
Storen took the mound with a two-run lead in the ninth and gave up four runs, allowing two-run singles to Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma. Storen had two Cardinals batters down to their last strike with two outs, but he walked Yadier Molina and David Freese to keep the inning going.
"We had it right there, and the most disappointing thing I'll say is that I just let these guys down," Storen said. "I know there's an unbelievable crowd and unbelievable support, but for the amount of adversity we dealt with this year, for it to come down to that was kind of tough."
It was the largest comeback ever in a winner-take-all postseason game, according to STATS LLC. No other club in this sort of ultimate pressure situation had come back from more than four runs down.
Storen threw five pitches with two strikes and two outs in the ninth. All were balls.
"I think he just tried to be too fine," manager Davey Johnson said. "He's got a great-moving fastball. Just need to throw it over."
Storen said he had no problems with the umpire's strike zone. The Cardinals were just disciplined at the plate when it counted.
"I made good pitches," he said. "I wouldn't change a thing. I have no regrets."
The Nationals had been let down by their bats in the first four games of the series, scoring only nine runs. But they greeted Adam Wainwright with a double, triple and homer by Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman in the first inning and chased the St. Louis starter with home runs by Harper and Morse in the third.
The Cardinals battled back, cutting into the 6-0 deficit with a run in the fourth, two in the fifth, one in the seventh and one in the eighth. Descalso's solo homer in the eighth off Tyler Clippard made it a one-run game, but the Nationals pulled back ahead by two in the bottom of the inning on Kurt Suzuki's RBI single.
But Storen, who regained the closer's job late in the season after Clippard struggled, couldn't finish the job. The season of Natitude was over, and a Cardinals team that's shown a knack for winning elimination games was moving on.
"They've proven that if there's a team out there to do it, it's going to be them," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "It's a good group of guys over there. I think they got the leg up on us in experience, and now next year we can say we've got a little experience."
Certainly the way the team is built, a winning postseason team shouldn't be far behind.
Washington lost baseball when the Senators moved to Texas after the 1971 season and didn't get it back until the Expos moved to D.C. in 2005. The team they got needed some work, finishing last in the NL East in five of its first six years while new owners were found, a stadium was built and a farm system was rebuilt.
The 100-loss seasons in 2008 and 2009 were particularly brutal, but at least they put the Nationals in position to take blue-chippers Stephen Strasburg and Harper with the No. 1 overall draft picks in 2009 and 2010.
Built around such youth — and led by Johnson, the oldest manager in the majors — this year's 98-win team gave Washington its first postseason experience in 79 years.
"It hasn't been done since 1933," said starter Gio Gonzalez, who allowed three runs over five innings. "Look at the positive. We're doing this now in 2012, getting ready for 2013."
This was Washington's first elimination game since the 1925 World Series when the legendary Walter Johnson lost by the same 9-7 score to the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Senators held a 6-3 lead in that game.
This series will also be remembered for an unanswered what-if quandary. Strasburg didn't pitch because the Nationals opted to shut him down early as a precaution in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery.
Strasburg wasn't happy with the decision, but general manager Mike Rizzo never wavered. Still, the GM and everyone else associated with the franchise will forever be asked if the outcome might have been different had the staff ace who thrives on big-game pressure been available to pitch Games 1 and 5.
"I'm not going to think about it, no," Rizzo said. "We had a plan in mind, and it was something that we had from the beginning, and I stand by my decision, and we'll take the criticism as it comes. But we have to do what's best for the Washington Nationals, and we think we did."
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