Immediately after Jayson Werth's walk-off home run on Thursday night, I knew I wanted to make my way down to D.C. for Game 5 of the Cardinals-Nationals series. I'm nominally a Red Sox fan; the Nationals have been near and dear to my heart during this baseball season for gambling purposes. On the same December day that the Nats traded for Gio Gonzalez, I went to the sportsbook and put a bet down on them to win the National League at 18-to-1. Even though that ticket was eventually burgled after I moved back to Boston, I still found myself pulling for the Nationals to win the pennant. Even if I couldn't cash my bet, it would be nice to see the long shot I got behind pull through. Combine that with an endearing cast of characters on the roster and an exuberant fan base, and I'll admit it: I had a little bit of Nat-itude. I'm not ashamed.
When I found out that a few of my friends were going to the game (albeit without any extra tickets), it was a good enough excuse for me to book a train ticket at 2 a.m., buy a seat on the secondary market, and make an impromptu trip to D.C. I thought that it was a no-lose situation. The late start, frigid weather, and high stakes for a fan base that hadn't seen a game of this magnitude in its franchise's existence was going to mean a wildly entertaining crowd. I figured that if the Nationals won, it was going to be a raucous night in D.C. And if they lost well, I wasn't all that emotionally invested in the team, so it wouldn't be a big deal, right?
You can probably see where this is heading.
By the time Ryan Zimmerman's first-inning blast cleared the fences, everybody in the stadium knew. Every person who knew even a tiny bit about baseball had the same collective thought: Adam Wainwright doesn't have his stuff tonight. We're going to win. Holy shit. I won't pretend that I was immune to that thought, either; I might be obstinately logical, but I bet if you go back through baseball history and look through games where the home team puts up a scoreless first and then starts their half of the first with a double, a triple, and a home run, they're winning nine times out of ten. And that's a feeling totally unique to baseball, too; you'd never think that early in a basketball or a football game, even if LeBron James started 0-for-6 or Aaron Rodgers threw a pick-six on the opening play. You might harbor it when an NHL goalie lets in a soft goal, but even then, it would be nowhere near as strong. There was the distinct sensation that more runs were coming with every single batter Mike Matheny let Wainwright pitch to before he came to his senses and took Wainwright out.
Of course, those runs came two innings later, when a pair of homers by Bryce Harper and Mike Morse chased Wainwright after 2⅓ innings. At that moment, Washington's chances of winning were at 96 percent. It was a party in the stands. I was a total stranger who wasn't even wearing anything Nationals-related, but it felt like I was sitting in seats with people whom I'd been suffering alongside for 30 years. High fives were exchanged. Blankets were shared. Everybody poked good-natured fun at the guy who was loudly offering Harper tips on how to properly maintain his balance throughout his stance just before he took Wainwright deep. I started wondering whether I would get fired from Grantland if I changed allegiances and Simmons noticed. It was the sort of scene you dream about as a fan, just complete and utter joy with hours more to go. It wasn't my personal team's joy, but I was having a lot of fun faking it through three innings.
And then, slowly but perceptibly, the situation began to erode.
More than any home team at any stadium I've ever been to, the Nationals make a big deal out of having two strikes on a hitter. During Game 5, they flashed a huge TWO STRIKES graphic on all the scoreboards and played the intro to "No Church in the Wild," which is basically catnip to get hyped about anything, anyway. It makes sense: The Nationals have a pitching staff built around great strikeout pitchers, notably more so when he-who-will-not-be-named-yet is on the roster. This, though, was a special occasion. After the Nationals bullpen recorded eight consecutive outs by way of the K at the end of Game 4, the crowd was bloodthirsty for strikeouts. With five strikeouts through the first four innings, Gonzalez — coincidentally, the starter whose arrival in town had made me fall for the Nats — was feeding the din.
From the beginning of the fifth inning, the best way to tell that the Nationals were falling apart was by those two strike counts. Gonzalez got the first two hitters in the fifth to two-strike counts, pushing the fans to their feet, and gave up a double and a single. It was an omen. Over those final five innings, while the Nationals fans got up for two-strike counts across 17 different Cardinals at-bats, St. Louis would strike out only four times. Instead, the Cardinals went off-script and produced an RBI groundout, three singles, a double, a home run, and four walks, knocking in five runs. With two strikes on them during the regular season, the Cardinals posted a .190/.265/.283 batting line, striking out nearly 40 percent of the time. During those fateful final five innings, the Cardinals got to two strikes and promptly hit .312/.450/.562. And every single time the crowd rose to their feet in anticipation and weren't met with the satisfaction of a strikeout, the home team's lead felt smaller and smaller. By the end of the eighth, the crowd felt undeniably worried.
Kurt Suzuki's improbable two-strike, two-out single off of Cards closer Jason Motte in the last half of the eighth was enough comfort, though, for the guy sitting next to me. With one of the few open seats in the park available to my right, he was summoned in the third inning from standing room by the family sitting behind me. Once Suzuki's single restored Washington's two-run lead, it was enough for him. I realize this sounds like a relic from some Baseball Digest fan fiction, but I swear that it's true; after the bottom of the eighth, this gentleman got up and announced that he was leaving. He said he had a race to run the following day and wanted to beat the crowds to the Metro ride home, and despite audible gasps and looks of sheer horror from the folks around him, he shook everyone's hand, got up, and walked up and out of our section. The ninth inning happened slowly enough that he might have actually been able to make it all the way to the subway and have had the entire final collapse occur while he was underground. In hindsight, I'm not sure whether he was the smartest person in the stadium for leaving early, or the stupidest.
There were five different two-strike pitches in the ninth inning, in which the Nationals had a chance to finish the game with a victory. I don't need a game story or a box score to know that; I know it because I took a photo of every single one of them with my iPhone as they happened, as did a fair number of the people around me. I was in the upper deck and would have had a terrible photo, anyway, but I wanted to get a shot at that moment when thousands of people jumped to their feet and waved their red towels in the air as the Nationals bench began to run onto the field, even if it was only just to provide me a memory of that specific second in time. I watched those five pitches miss the plate out of the corner of my eye.
The hit that tied the game inspired panic because the scoreboard operator in Nationals Park screwed up. Two runs crossed the board, but instead of putting a 7-7 tie on the scoreboard, the operator put up an 8-7 Cardinals lead instead. It was late enough in the evening and a stunning enough turn of events that this inspired genuine panic and confusion in the stands, myself included. Isn't the game tied? Did I forget a run?! It was the sound of 43,000 people asking the 2,000 people maintaining scorecards whether the scoreboard was right. Then, once the correct score was posted, a bit of calm actually washed over the crowd. It was as if everybody looked at the scoreboard and saw who was coming up for the Nationals. Werth. Harper. Zimmerman. 7-7? No big deal; we were probably just meant to win it in the ninth anyway. I started envisioning how much fun it would be to see Harper connect with a Motte fastball and make his way around the bases before the ball landed. (That's also known as a Lidging.) It just seemed like the latest tribulation that a team in the Division Series was going to have to run through before a stunning ninth-inning victory.
I'll remember the game-winning hit, though, until the day I die. When Kozma singled through the hole into right, the entire crowd went silent. So silent, in fact, that the screams of celebration from the Cardinals bench were easy to hear in the upper deck. After more than 45,000 people had spent virtually four hours shouting and cheering at the expense of 40 others, those 40 people got to joyfully bask in their success and silence that group of 45,000. Forget that being an event exclusive to baseball; where else does that happen in life beyond sports? I've never heard anything like that in a lifetime of going to games.
When Jason Motte struck out to mercifully end the inning, the entertainment guy at the stadium threw out a "Strikeout!" graphic and played Blur's "Song 2" over it. It felt like a bit they'd cued up for the game-ending, series-winning strikeout that somehow accidentally got played after a four-run disaster of an inning. Shockingly, very few people in the crowd felt the urge to shout "Woo-hoo!" along with the music. Maybe everyone suddenly realized it was a parody. The bottom of the ninth was quick and uneventful; by the time Ryan Zimmerman's popup came off of his bat, fans were already standing up and streaming towards the exits.
After the loss, I expected a fatalistic, despondent crowd to mutter all the way to the Metro. I was wrong. Everybody I was around was in disbelief, but they were actually pretty serene and bemused about everything that went down. People were upset about the loss, but in that "Aw, it would have been fun to party tonight and have more playoff baseball!" way, not the "Our lives are collectively ruined until March" way. For all the talk about what a huge story line it is locally and how Nationals fans were going to question the organization if things didn't go their way, I didn't hear a single person mention Stephen Strasburg's name after the loss. Not one.
It was actually remarkable how well the Cardinals fans were treated; when I was talking to one as we were standing in line on the way out, he asked me to point out just how well-treated they had been and how gracious the Washington fans had been in defeat. You can say these things when you are entirely confident that your team will never lose a meaningful game again. Think about it. In 13 months, the Cardinals have gone through last year's September run, Game 6 of the World Series, and this 25-to-1 comeback win over the Nationals. If you were a Cardinals fan, why would you ever believe that your team is going to lose a playoff series again? If they happen to lose to the Giants, I feel like Cardinals fans will sit in front of their televisions until February expecting to hear that Yadier Molina's exploited some loophole, restarted the playoffs, and somehow walked, hit a game-tying home run, and threw out runners at second and third on the same play. The Cardinals are closer to superheroes and action stars than baseball players in elimination games at this point. The Cardinals fans I saw and spoke to weren't acting like they had just been given an unexpected new life by a miraculous comeback; they were matter-of-fact, collectively the jockey who was merely waiting until the last minute to push his horse to the front. I can't say that I blame them.
At the end of the night, I found myself downtown in a bar with my friends. The one Nats fan in our group was more despondent than most, and we led him over to the jukebox to play some appropriate music. Most of his selections didn't last long. "Everybody Hurts" was cut off by the bartender after a minute. "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" faded out somewhere around 90 seconds. What did make through, though, was the Johnny Cash cover of "Hurt." By the time the chorus rolled around, in fact, the half of the bar that was adorned in Nats attire had joined in and turned it into a sardonic, wistful sing-along. I had to recuse myself. You can co-opt another fan base's glee. You can't claim their heartache.