The benefit and curse of having seen ten tons of baseball games and being able to nimbly catalogue among the standouts almost by reflex is that you’re rarely starved for precedent when something seemingly unprecedented occurs. So while it is true that nobody had ever seen anything quite like what happened between Washington and St. Louis in Game Five of the NLDS Friday night, I’d retained in my mind a few games that were something like it.
When the Nationals hit their third homer and were up by 6-0 in the third inning, I blurted out, “Well, the Cardinals are dead,” and immediately thought, “No, they’re probably not,” likely because on September 12, 1985, the Mets — as managed by Davey Johnson — scored four runs in the first and two runs in the second and I assumed the Cardinals were dead. No, they weren’t. Baseball permits the pecking away of leads sometimes, and on what those of us who were around back then will always recall as Baseball Thursday, the Redbirds pecked: three in the third, two in the fourth and a goddamn home run by goddamn Willie McGee off Jesse Orosco in the top of the ninth to tie it at six. Fortunately, the Mets used the bottom of the ninth to their advantage and pulled out the victory, 7-6, taking a one-game lead in the N.L. East in the process. I was young/naïve enough to take this as a sign that everything would work out fine in the ensuing three-and-a-half weeks of the season. The Mets would in fact go on to win 98 games. The Cardinals, however, recovered and won 101 and the division title in the days when not winning the division title meant an automatic trip home. I’m old enough now that I never take anything good at face value.
There were no Nationals in 1985, but they existed by 2007. They fell behind, 5-0, to Carlos Beltran and the Mets in the third inning of the game of September 26. Beltran had just hit his second home run of the evening. Carlos and his teammates seemed to be on their way to a much-needed win. Less than two weeks earlier, the first-place Mets had led the second-place Phillies by seven games. The lead was down to two entering this, the 158th game of the season. A 5-0 lead might have felt secure in a dozen other situations. It felt nothing of the kind on September 26, 2007. Against first-time starter Phil Humber and several of Willie Randolph’s most reliable relievers, the Nationals pecked and then pounded away. They went on to beat the Mets, 9-6. The Phillies won that night. The lead was down to one. You know the rest. I thought of that game while the 2012 Nationals held a 6-0 lead on the 2012 Cardinals because the 2012 Cardinals included Carlos Beltran and I wondered if any of this crossed his mind the way it did mine. It probably didn’t, but I’d like to think it did.
I was at that miserable game in 2007. I was also at a miserable game in 2011 in which the Pirates took a 7-0 lead on Mike Pelfrey and the Mets in the third inning. There was no reason to stay fixed on the action if you weren’t rooting for the Pirates, but I did anyway. When Carlos Beltran — who had just been the subject of a barb or two from Fred Wilpon in the New Yorker — hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the third, the Mets weren’t down seven anymore. They were down four. There was plenty of time for pecking, for pounding, for Pelfrey. Terry Collins left his pitcher in, as if to tell him and us that this thing wasn’t over yet. It wasn’t. Pelf went five. The Mets pushed four across in the sixth to tie (starting with a leadoff double from Beltran) and two more in the eighth to lead (the ninth run plating as Beltran accepted a bases-loaded walk). The Mets wound up 9-8 winners on June 2, 2011. It didn’t send the Mets on a relentless upward trajectory, but it made for a much more pleasant Thursday afternoon at the ol’ ballpark.
So I thought of these three games a little as the Nationals led the Cardinals, 6-0, then 6-1 and 6-3 and 6-4 and 6-5. Carlos and the Cards were so not dead. Davey and the Nats were so not out of the woods. But then Washington cobbled together a so-called insurance run in the bottom of the eighth, and 7-5 looked a lot better than 6-5. True, two Nats runners remained on base as a third out was registered, but the lead had been increased. It was something the Giants hadn’t done after Buster Posey put San Francisco up early on the Reds the day before at 6-0. Cincy closed to within 6-4 and were on the brink of a remarkable comeback in the ninth. They couldn’t quite get there. I thought the Giants escaped with a series win. Here I thought the Nationals were preventing a series loss.
I thought wrong. Here came Carlos Beltran to lead off the top of the ninth with a double against Drew Storen. Beltran had been doing nifty things since this postseason started. He had done so many nifty things in the 2004 postseason that it made him a tycoon. He did quite a few neat things in the 2006 postseason, too. Things got noticeably messy for him only once, really, and that’s the splotch many with a Met allegiance see at the expense of everything else Carlos Beltran has ever done. Amid the collapse of September 2007, Beltran’s slash line was .282/.328/.555; in the deflationary period of September 2008, it measured .344/.440/.645. He drove in Jose Reyes in the bottom of the ninth of the fourth-to-last game in Shea Stadium history, effecting its last walkoff win and keeping the Mets tied with the Brewers for what was then the only Wild Card spot available in the National League. Three days later, he hit the last Met home run at Shea, tying the final game there at two in the sixth inning and maintaining the Mets’ viability for at least a few minutes ahead of the entry of two of Jerry Manuel’s most reliable relievers. The splotch everybody remembers from the end of Game Seven in 2006 was the aberration in Beltran’s career, not the apotheosis.
Maybe the only thing Carlos Beltran did wrong in the ninth inning on October 19 six years ago was bat last instead of first.
Anyway, Beltran doubled, Storen — theoretically Johnson’s most reliable reliever — made it almost irrelevant by grounding out Matt Holliday and striking out Allen Craig, but no baserunner is irrelevant in a Cardinal uniform when the Cardinals are on the brink of elimination. The next two batters were Yadier Molina and David Freese. One of them long ago homered in a ninth inning to put his team ahead in the seventh game of a fiercely contested postseason series. The other not so long before had tripled in a ninth inning to keep his team alive in the sixth game of a fiercely contested postseason series and then homered in its eleventh inning to force a seventh game that his team also won. Here, each of them walked to load the bases. The Nationals still led the Cardinals, 7-5. There were still two out. Storen was still very much capable of ending the game and the series by retiring just one more batter.
For other franchises — the one we root for comes to mind — placing three contemporary October icons on base and not yet having scored would have seemed to presage doom. But the St. Louis Cardinals are not one of those franchises. Maybe it’s luck. Maybe it’s only anecdotal. But the closer for the team with the most wins in baseball holding the fort and standing one out from sending his team to its first LCS (and his team’s city to its first postseason series victory in 88 years) didn’t seem reassuring whatsoever for that team. The Nationals were as likely to be doomed as they were to get out of it.
They were doomed. Daniel Descalso stroked a hot grounder up the middle that flicked off the glove of a diving Ian Desmond and trickled into the outfield. Beltran scored. Molina’s unnecessary pinch-runner scored. Freese was on third. Pete Kozma, whose introduction to baseball at large came from not catching an infield fly one week earlier in Atlanta, was up next, and though his two-RBI liner to right was technically immensely dramatic, it was really closer to utterly predictable. Of course the Nationals went from up 7-5 and one out from advancement to down 9-7 and one inning from elimination. That reads like a hindsight “of course” on Saturday morning, yet really, could anybody but the most starry eyed Washingtonian not have sensed this coming for six innings?
This is not to say it wasn’t horrible to watch unfold. It was way more horrible from a Nationals perspective than it was uplifting from a Cardinals perspective, and I say that as a generally unaligned Mets fan who doesn’t much care for either organization save for the presence of Davey Johnson on one side and Carlos Beltran on the other. The Cardinals just did this against the Rangers to win a World Series. Maybe not exactly this — four runs in the ninth inning of a win-or-done postseason scenario was indeed unprecedented — but close enough. For all the breathtaking comebacks we saw sprout amid the 20 League Division Series games, it’s clearly the Cardinals who own the copyright on this sort of thing. If I loved the Cardinals, I’d be routinely thrilled.
But if I loved the Nationals, I’d be hiding under the bed for the next six weeks.
I had the briefest of second-team flirtations with the Nationals when they came along, probably out of novelty. I would listen to their games on XM and be charmed when their lead announcer, Charlie Slowes — who grew up a Mets fan — would punctuate their frequent RFK Stadium wins in the first half of 2005 with a Honeymooners-flavored sendoff of “Bang Zoom Go the Fireworks!” I got over the novelty soon enough. The Nationals stopped being fascinating to me and became just another division rival. Then I got to know my buddy Jeff, a displaced Long Islander who considers himself on an extended business trip, which is to say he’s been living just outside Washington for 23 years. He welcomed the Nationals from Montreal because it meant the Mets would be playing in his backyard nine or ten times a year. Jeff has informed me in no uncertain terms that Nationals fans are, for the most part, unconscionable douchebags and they are not worth (let alone Werth) our sympathies even in the most benign of circumstances.
I wanted them to win this series anyway. Mostly for Davey, who gave me a sensational two-thirds of a decade way back when and one unforgettable October in particular. Twenty-seven years after winning 98 games wasn’t good enough to get his 1985 Mets in the playoffs, he finds the same number of victories going for naught just a little later in the calendar. I also wanted new blood for this postseason and relatively fresh storylines for my blogging. I had all sorts of material in reserve for an extended Nationals run: Jeff stuff; Washington stuff; Expos memory hole stuff; Davey stuff certainly. My rooting interest in this NLDS was for the better story to prevail (which is one of those sad things sportswriters always say, but the Mets aren’t playing, thus I don’t feel soulless admitting that). The Nationals were going to be interesting to have around for a while. The Cardinals, despite executing this millennium’s most incredible ninth innings, are old hat by comparison. All four teams left standing are more familiar than the four teams they defeated. Too familiar for my tastes. I wanted the Orioles, the A’s, the Reds and the Nats. I got the Tigers, the Giants, the Cardinals and whoever. It could make for great baseball, but it doesn’t shape up as quite as much fun.
But never mind my dilettante priorities. It’s the actual Nationals fan, the one who doesn’t annoy Jeff on the Metro, who’s under the bed this morning. The Nats have existed as the Nats for eight seasons. It wasn’t too soon for them to have their moment. We had our moment in our eighth season. If this wasn’t going to be their 1969 exactly, it was helluva first time to get this far and go farther. Their future looms as promising (which was the idea behind setting aside their ace pitcher for safe keeping), but by the next time there are players in Nationals jerseys, we will uniformly wish them the worst because they’ll be back to being just another division rival. If their fans get another crack at October, it will have a whole other complexion, maybe one that encompasses redemption for what didn’t happen in 2012. If they don’t, this will hurt forever.
No, actually, it will hurt forever no matter what. Just watching it from a distance was pretty goddamn painful.