WASHINGTON -- There is something especially cruel about it, when a home team finds itself on the wrong side of a great and historic comeback. The Cardinals' comeback on Friday night was both of those things, as they bankrupted the Nationals' lead and season gradually, and then suddenly, chipping away at a 6-0 third-inning deficit before exploding for four runs in the top of the ninth inning against closer Drew Storen to win 9-7, and to win this NL Division Series three games to two. In so doing, they became the first club ever to trail by more than four runs in a winner-take-all postseason game and emerge victorious.
As the game was played in Washington, though, the overwhelming feeling just after it -- except for among the several dozen members of the Cardinals' organization who were here, whose celebratory shouts from the infield could be heard all the way up to the last row of Nationals Park and who doused each other with champagne and beer in the visitors' clubhouse while screaming, "Happy flight!" -- was one of stunned grief. The Nationals' fans just stood in their seats, silent, as if waiting for something, anything, more to happen. But it was over.
Three hours before, such a turn of events had seemed unfathomable for the Nationals. The game had started so promisingly. Washington had scored three runs against Adam Wainwright before he even recorded an out. The blows came from Ryan Zimmerman, who launched a two-run homer, and rookie Bryce Harper, who had driven an RBI triple to the wall just before Zimmerman's blast. After Harper led off the bottom of the third with a homer of his own, the evening looked as if it would be remembered as the postseason arrival of the 19-year-old phenom.
For all of his talent, Harper has always been a slow starter. He went 3-for-15 in his first four games at the College of Southern Nevada, in 2010. He hit .211 over his first five games at Class-A Hagerstown, in 2011. After his first 13 games with Washington this season, he was batting .213, and through his first four playoff games he was 1-for-18. In an attempt to change his luck, he had altered his hair color, he had worn red contacts, he had worn his socks low, and then high, and then low again. But all he needed was time. Three batters after Harper's blast, Mike Morse belted a two-run homer. Wainwright's night was done, and soon, it seemed, would be baseball's old generation of champions, making way, already, for a potential new one.
Wainwright managed to record just seven outs. "Take care of me," he told his teammates, when manager Mike Matheny came to take him out. "Pick me up." Then he walked into his clubhouse, changed out of his spikes and into sneakers, and went back out to the dugout to see if they could. "There was no way I was going to sit around and pout," he said. "The game was on the line, the season was on the line. I had a terrible performance. The least I could do was go out there, cheer them on and be a positive influence."
"It's definitely the lowest I've ever felt in my career," Wainwright said. "Then, all of a sudden, it's one of the highest." It wasn't quite so sudden, at first. Surely, the Nationals' starter Gio Gonzalez -- "Maybe a Cy Young pitcher this year, just amazing stuff that guy has over there," Wainwright said -- would make a 6-0 lead hold up. But Gonzalez would only last through the fifth inning, and was lucky to exit with a 6-3 lead, as he had loaded the bases in his last frame, with no outs. The Cardinals, systematically, kept applying pressure to the Nationals' bullpen, breaking through here and there: a run in the seventh off of Edwin Jackson (6-4); another in the eighth off of Tyler Clippard (6-5).
The Nationals added an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth, to lead 7-5, and in the ninth, the Cardinals were twice down to their final strike. Then Yadier Molina turned a 2-2 count against Storen into a walk, and then David Freese did the same, after falling behind in the count 1-2, to load the bases. "You want to succeed -- but walking is successful," Freese would say. "Our lineup, when we're hot, we've got no problems taking our walks and moving on." Daniel Descalso, the second baseman, immediately showed why that is true. He drilled a single off the outstretched glove of shortstop Ian Desmond -- tie game. Then rookie Pete Kozma lined a single to right. The Cardinals led 9-7. The Nationals still had three outs left. But it was over.
In all, the Cardinals played a lot like last year's champions, to whom the term "final strike" meant nothing but that they were still alive. Much was said this week about the experience the club had accrued during last October's unlikely run. But the central heroes, on Friday night, were not a part of that team. The heroes included Carlos Beltran -- signed as a free agent last winter -- who reached base all five times he stepped to the plate. They included Descalso and Kozma -- last October they were, respectively, a pinch hitter and a minor leaguer -- who combined to go 5-for-10 with five runs in the clincher, and who for the series hit .385 with three home runs, 11 RBIs and 11 runs scored. And they included rookie relievers Joe Kelly and Trevor Rosenthal, who pitched 2 2/3 perfect innings immediately after Wainwright's departure, stopping the bleeding. "Quieted the storm, kept it right where it needed to be, gave our hitters a chance to get back in the game," a grateful Wainwright said of that duo.
As the Cardinals conducted their now practiced Korbel-laced celebration, the Nationals sat quietly at their lockers in their oval-shaped clubhouse, tape from the protective plastic sheeting that had been quickly ripped down still stuck to the walls above their heads. One of them stood, by his own locker, wearing a long shirt and sliding shorts, leaning against a bat as if it were a cane: Stephen Strasburg. Would things have been different had Strasburg been allowed to pitch, to start Game 1 and, potentially, Game 5? Perhaps, if you believe that the eyes and brain of GM Mike Rizzo, which were so often right in building his club from nothing into what it is, were wrong in shutting Strasburg down for his and his team's future well-being. Perhaps, if you believe that two of Strasburg's final three regular season starts -- in which he allowed, in eight combined innings, 10 earned runs and 15 hits -- were aberrations, and not a sure sign of a looming breakdown. Perhaps Strasburg's presence on the roster would have amounted to the fluttering of the butterfly's wings that would have changed everything in this series for the Nationals, and changed what had happened on Friday night.
The Strasburg decision is one that will now, officially, be debated in Washington for decades to come, as it would have had this season ended in any way except for with a championship, and still might have even then. But to focus on it is to improperly overlook the Cardinals' accomplishments here. They outscored the Nationals 32-16 in the series -- Strasburg is a good hitter, for a pitcher, but not that good -- and, even with much of the work being done by new players, and under a new manager, they displayed every bit of the spectacularly methodical, clear-eyed and full-hearted spirit that won them everything last year.
"Washington's going to be good for a long time," said Skip Schumacher, the Cardinals' utilityman, and that was the message emanating from the Nationals' shell-shocked clubhouse. "There ain't nothing we can do," said Harper, his day and season ruined. "It's not how I wanted my year to end, definitely. Wanted to play deeper into the postseason. Not ready to go home. Not ready to take off that uniform. It happens. Come out next year, and not let it happen. That's baseball, you know?"
"Can't do nothing about it," said Gonzalez. "Just tip your cap to it and keep moving. We battled. Leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, but, you know, turn the page, find a new gum to chew on."
The Cardinals look to be not nearly done chewing. Next up, on Sunday in San Francisco, will be the Giants, who can now be more certain than ever that a meal with St. Louis is not done until the postprandial cigars have been lit.