WASHINGTON?They lost Monday, and again Tuesday, and on Wednesday the Nationals found themselves one game from being swept at home by the Cardinals for the first time in their history. They stood at 10-10, five games behind the Braves, and the fans were getting impatient. But the weather was nice, the cherry trees in bloom, and, more to the point, Stephen Strasburg was pitching. It seemed like a fine afternoon to skip work or school and go to the ballpark.
On the second pitch of the game, the Cardinals' Matt Carpenter hit a blooper that dropped in front of left fielder Bryce Harper. It looked like a single, but Carpenter rounded first and kept coming. Harper's throw beat him to the base, and the umpire signaled an out, but second baseman Danny Espinosa dropped the ball, and the umpire signaled safe. What should have been one out, bases empty quickly became man on second, nobody out. Officially, Carpenter hit a double.
Strasburg kicked that left leg up high, reared back and struck out Allen Craig. Then he threw Matt Holliday a 95-mph fastball that Holliday lashed into right for a single. First and third, one out. Strasburg walked Carlos Beltran. Six minutes in and the bases were loaded.
Another fastball, and Yadier Molina hit a little flare to right. Jayson Werth hustled but couldn't get it. Two-run single, two still on, only one out. There was a faint cry of "LET'S GO NATS."
Strasburg got ahead 0-2 on Daniel Descalso and then got him to hit a grounder to third. But Anthony Rendon's throw to second was high, pulling the fielder off the base, and everyone was safe. The scoring went E5, with a fielder's choice and an RBI. Even with the double play that ended the inning, Strasburg found himself behind 3-0. His ERA for the season had risen from just under 3 to just under 4 in a single inning.
Three Nationals came up in the first, and three went down. They hit the ball just as hard as the Cardinals had, but to the wrong places. In the bottom of the second, Danny Espinosa crushed the ball but it was caught at the warning track, and then Rendon struck out, leaving a man on third. They went quietly in the third, too, with Cardinals starter Jaime Garcia firmly in control.
Fortunately, some things at the park did not depend on the Nationals' performance. Kris Combs, a 36-year-old website producer, could still teach his 5-year-old son Escher to crack open roasted peanuts. Eight dollars and fifty cents would still get you a Ben's Original Half Smoke, halfway between a frank and a sausage, nicely charred on the exterior, topped off with chili, cheese, onions and jalapenos. And in the middle of the fourth inning, five people dressed as gargantuan American presidents still ran a race along the warning track. "George has won every time I've been here," said Susan Troll, a nurse with a day off, "and I think the fix is in."
After the first inning, Strasburg was nearly unhittable. His fastball was usually 95 mph and sometimes 96 and occasionally 98. After mowing down the Cardinals in the fifth, he had lowered his ERA back to 3.41. Then he cruised through the sixth.
In the bottom half of the sixth, Strasburg was scheduled to lead off. Would they pinch-hit for him? No. Strasburg had one hit all season, and now he had two: a leadoff single bouncing over second base. The crowd of 33,694 became interested.
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Back to the top of the order. Denard Span slapped another single up the middle. Two men on for Jayson Werth, the right fielder with the lumberjack beard and the $126-million contract. He swung the wood and laid down a swinging bunt. The pitcher threw him out at first. Second and third, one out, Bryce Harper to the plate. Best chance of the day for the Nationals' best hitter. A home run could tie it. He took a big cut and missed an off-speed pitch, and the crowd made a sound of disappointment. Then he grounded out to second, bringing home Strasburg but further disappointing the fans. After a walk loaded the bases and Joe Kelly came on in relief, Ian Desmond struck out. The fans groaned. Another opportunity wasted. The Cardinals led 3-1 after 6.
Strasburg finished the seventh, allowing no runs, but he also threw his 110th pitch. And so, in the bottom half, with runners on first and third and only one out, manager Davey Johnson pulled Strasburg for a pinch hitter. It did not go well. Steve Lombardozzi swung through a high fastball on a 3-2 count with Jhonatan Solano running on the pitch. Solano was thrown out at second. Inning over. The fans seemed to lose hope.
You could see them leaving after that, going through the Center Field Gate and then up Half Street toward the Navy Yard Metro station. Meanwhile, the breaks continued to favor the Cardinals. Matt Holliday hit a ball straight off the plate and high in the air and by the time it came down the Cardinals led 4-1 and everyone was safe.
In the bottom of the eighth, if any of the fans approaching the Center Field Gate had turned to the right at the crack of Jayson Werth's bat, they would have seen the ball soaring over left-center field and landing in the bullpen. A home run for the lumberjack. Too bad no one was on base. It was too little, too late.
By the ninth inning, when the giant television screen said 'LET'S HEAR YOU 10TH MAN,' the tenth man had largely departed. Traffic was moving slowly on Interstate 695, and beyond that you could see the Capitol gleaming in the sun. Very faintly, from the outfield stands, a few fans cried, "LET'S GO NATS. LET'S GO NATS." There was a groundout, and a flyout. Below the press box, a man bellowed, "YOU GUYS STINK! YOU'RE PLAYING LOUSY BASEBALL!" A grounder to short ended the game. You could barely hear the boos. The bellowing man continued. "YOU GUYS PLAY LOUSY BASEBALL!" And then, upward: "HEY, PRESS BOX! HEADLINE: THEY STINK!"
In the post-game press conference, Nationals manager Davey Johnson spoke barely above a whisper. He knew the truth: but for a blooper, a flare, and a bouncer off the plate, they probably would have won the game. "The little things go against you," he said, and then, a minute later, "There's always tomorrow."
Strasburg came out of the shower and put on his jeans, a powder-blue T-shirt and a pair of well-worn brown ankle boots and then it was time to face the reporters. Counting print, radio and television, there were nearly twenty. "It seems like the ball's not really dropping in our favor," he said, also speaking softly, and when it was over he put on a ballcap and walked out of the room.
Out on the field they were spraying down the dust. The fans were gone but they would come back. There was always tomorrow.