WASHINGTON – It was well into Saturday morning when the team that still isn't ready for the postseason trudged into the clubhouse. Had the Washington Nationals looked up they would have noticed their collapse was so sudden that clubhouse attendants didn't have time to properly pull down the plastic draped above their lockers.
The plastic was to protect the players' clothes from the champagne celebration that the Nationals were certain to have just half an hour before. Now it was rolled up and hastily taped to the ceiling. Some of it had been ripped down and little shreds still remained tacked to the wall.
Several players hugged in long, sad embraces. Many dabbed at tears. Drew Storen, the closer charged with four earned runs in the ninth inning and the worst of a team-wide collapse, walked in circles around the room, his uniform off, his face frozen in shock.
"Everything was working fine," Storen finally said. "We just didn't execute."
Across the room, standing alone by his locker, Mark DeRosa, now a National and once a Cardinal, nodded slowly.
"The Cardinals, they find a way, man," he said. "It's like they go over there and put on that Cardinal uniform and something just happens. They chip away and chip away and they just find a way to beat you."
[More Beltway blues: Were the Orioles robbed of a HR?]
St. Louis rallied with four runs in the ninth to defeat Washington, 9-7, in Game 5 of the NL Divisional Series. In the greatest collapse ever in a postseason closeout game, one truth glared bright: The Nationals, winners of 98 games and the National League East are still not ready for a moment like Saturday morning's while the Cardinals know very much how to win these games. You could see the fear in the Nationals' pitchers that picked at the edges of the strike zone. You could feel the tension in Washington hitters who suddenly went cold as the game wore on. And as each hour ticked toward midnight and St. Louis cleaved away – a little piece at a time – at the Nationals' once-formidable lead, you could feel momentum slipping from the hands of the team that was trying hard to close its eyes and hope it could survive.
Had the Nationals not been so busy celebrating their three-run third inning, the one with the home runs by Bryce Harper and Michael Morse, they might have noticed something about the club they were on the way to vanquishing. The Cardinals players ran off the field at inning's end. They jumped in their dugout and they clapped. Shortstop Pete Kozma remembers several players shouting: "Let's go from here." They were down 6-0. Their top starter had been knocked out. They would not die.
Asked later, long after the slow, steady comeback, how the Cardinals continue to do this, how they pull out games they should never win, their third baseman David Freese stood in the clubhouse and laughed. His shirt was drenched, the carpet beneath him soaked with champagne. He ran his hand through soggy hair and laughed again.
"Character," he said. "It starts with character. You sign talent but there's already a built-in belief that guys fight here."
He was pressed: surely there is something more than just character and fight. Surely there is something more, something deeper; a science to winning in October when the pressure is greatest and everything is magnified.
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"You battle," he said. "You get tunnel vision, you understand you have got to get a hit or take a walk. You take what you can get."
Finally he was asked if there is a way to winning in the postseason that is different from the regular season. His face brightened.
"Oh yes," he said. "I think during the regular season it's a grind," he said. "But you get re-energized in the postseason. You've got to play pitch-to-pitch. You try to slow your mind down."
More than anything this is the difference between the team that won the regular season and the one that won last year's World Series. The Nationals don't understand this time of year. Most of the players, in the clubhouse with the plastic rolled up, have never been in the postseason. They seemed surprised by the intensity. Just the day before third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said he was surprised how tired he was after the playoff games. The churn of October was so new.
In the end this loss had nothing to do with Stephen Strasburg. Perhaps if he started Games 1 and 5 things would have turned out differently. It's hard to say. Gio Gonzalez was one of the best pitchers in the National League this year and his control failed him in the two games he started. Jordan Zimmermann pitched poorly in his one start, as did Edwin Jackson. Sure the Nats could have used Strasburg. Maybe the bullpen wouldn't have appeared so strained.
But this defeat had more to do with the men in the clubhouse than the one who was not. Washington manager Davey Johnson kept rolling out relief pitchers who didn't throw enough strikes, who played to the strength of the Cardinals' hitters who patiently waited for a walk or a mistake they could line into the outfield for a hit.
Perhaps no team in baseball is more resilient than St. Louis. Even after Tony LaRussa, the Cardinals' brilliant but overbearing manager, retired they continue to play much the same – quietly, patiently pushing through inning after inning, trying to find that right pitch and eventually doing so.
It was well after 1 a.m. on Saturday and the Nats were still stunned. They moved slowly through their clubhouse, toward the showers they never expected to take, wondering what had gone wrong, wondering just who that team was in the clubhouse down the hall.
And in that room, dripping with champagne, a Cardinals player suddenly shouted out. The party was over. It was time to stop celebrating and think about the San Francisco Giants. Enough with screaming and the popping of corks and swilling of beer. Slowly, the players obliged. They put down their beers, they turned to the plastic draped over their lockers and they pulled it down themselves.
Time to go back to work for the team that knows the postseason all too well.
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