How long does it take for unbridled joy and optimism to dissolve into utter disbelief and then despair? A half inning, apparently.
A stunning four-run ninth inning by the defending World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals turned a raucous Nats Park into a mausoleum as quickly as that as the Cardinals came back from two runs down and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in a period of three outs, beating the Washington Nationals 9-7 and winning the best-of-five series, three games to two, to advance to the National League Championship Series.
Nats closer Drew Storen, on the mound for that fateful top of the ninth inning with a two-run lead, got two outs while allowing a runner to reach third base. After that, he threw five pitches when the Cardinals were down to their last strike before elimination. The Cardinals swung at none of those five pitches, taking them all for balls, as Storen first walked Yadier Molina after having him 2-2, then David Freese, whom he had at 1-2. Then, as they had done all series long, the bottom two hitters in the Cardinals order — Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma — did the Nats in.
Descalso’s hard ground ball, on the first pitch offered by Storen, ticked off shortstop Ian Desmond’s glove and caromed into center field for a single, tying the game. Storen then put Kozma — the No. 8 hitter — in an 0-2 hole but couldn’t finish him off either, as Kozma worked the count to 2-2 before slicing a 95-MPH sinker into right field that brought in two more runs — the margin of victory that allowed the Cardinals to advance and the Nationals to sit in stunned silence to contemplate how it could all go so wrong, so quickly.
In the end, the Nationals blew the largest lead that led to defeat in an elimination game in MLB history.
Things started so positively for the Nats. A three-run first inning and three-run third inning gave the Nats what seemed at the time to be an insurmountable six-run lead into the middle innings. Starter Gio Gonzalez wasn’t his sharpest though, and the Cards had halved the lead by the time the 21-game winner’s night had ended after five innings. The rest was up to the Nats bullpen and the Cardinals kept chipping away at the lead until they exploded in the ninth to finally overtake the Nats.
The fireworks started right away for the Nats. After Gonzalez retired the Cardinals in the top of the first, Game 4 hero Jayson Werth doubled to lead off the Nats’ half of the frame. Bryce Harper, who came into the game 1-for-18 in the series, crushed a 1-0 pitch from Adam Wainright to center for a triple, scoring Werth. Ryan Zimmerman followed with his second home run of the series, a no-doubter to center. After three batters, the Nats held a 3-0 lead.
They extended that lead in the third. Leading off, Harper took a 3-0 sinker — that didn’t sink — half way up the bleachers in right center above the out-of-town scoreboard for his first home run of the series. Zimmerman doubled to right center on the very next pitch. After Adam LaRoche struck out for the first out of the inning, Michael Morse got in on the party, clubbing a two-run shot to the Cardinals bullpen in left center to give the Nats a 6-0 lead — and end Wainright’s night.
All told, Wainright gave up six runs on seven hits, including three home runs.
The Cardinals got one back in the fourth inning. Carlos Beltran drew a leadoff walk from Gonzalez and scored on Matt Holliday’s double to the left field corner that Morse had trouble digging out of the corner. It got worse in the fifth. Gonzalez, the Majors’ only 21-game winner this year, gave up two more and narrowly escaped with the lead intact. He gave up two hits to start the inning, then lost all semblance of control. He walked pinch-hitter Shane Robinson to lead the bases, then uncorked a wild pitch to bring in the first run of the inning.
Gonzalez got Matt Holliday on a comebacker for the second out of the inning, but then walked Allen Craig to force in the Cardinals third run of the game. Then, on a 2-0 pitch that was clearly destined to the third ball of the at bat, Yadier Molina lofted a lazy fly to right field to mercifully end the inning — and Gio’s night – with the Nats clinging to a 6-3 lead. Gonzalez’ final line ended up not looking very pretty: three earned runs on five hits and four walks with five strikeouts and a wild pitch, with only 56 of hits 99 pitches for strikes.
The Cards wouldn’t go away. Nats manager Davey Johnson tried to go to the well again, bringing in a starting pitcher for a relief appearance in the seventh inning. It didn’t go as well this time, as Edwin Jackson was spotty at best, giving up a run on a hit and two walks, though he did strike out two, including last year’s playoff darling David Freese to end the inning with runners on base.
The Nats margin for error was reduced to one run with the first batter in the eighth inning. With Tyler Clippard on the mound, Descalsco deposited a 2-2 change-up over the right field fence in into the Nats bullpen to reduce the Nats lead to 6-5 with no outs. Clippard got Kozma to pop up, struck out pinch-hitter Matt Carpenter and coaxed a fly to medium center out of Jon Jay to end the inning, clinging to a precious one-run lead.
But these Nats have been resilient all season long, and Game 5 was no different. Adam LaRoche led off the bottom of the eighth with a single to right, and before the crowd had finished the refrain “I’ll. Be. Gone. In a day or twooo…” Morse lined a single to center. Ian Desmond then grounded to third to force Morse, but beat out the relay throw to avoid a double play. Danny Espinosa concluded his forgettable series (1-for-15, 7 Ks), fouling out for the second out, but Kurt Suzuki came through with a single up the middle, giving the Nats what seemed to be an all-important insurance run and a 7-5 lead.
But the defending World Champion Cardinals weren’t done. Carlos Beltran, who owns the playoffs apparently, doubled to the wall off Drew Storen to lead off. Matt Holliday grounded to third to advance Beltran 90 feet and Allen Craig struck out to put the Nats one out from the NLCS. But Storen walked Molina and Freese to load the bases despite several close pitches.
Descalso ripped a hard shot off Desmond’s glove and into short center field to tie the game. Kozma flared a single to right to put the Cardinals up by two. Just like that, what had been a night-long lead turned into a two-run deficit.
And utter heartbreak.
Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Nats and the Caps, and previously wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network. Dave’s first sports hero was Bobby Dandridge. Follow Dave’s Nationals coverage on Twitter @NationalsDSP.