Inside a losing clubhouse

Beanballs,Sports,Brian McNally

Just two weeks ago we took you into the heart of a joyous baseball locker room, a pointillist painting of random images that merge together to form a whole. You aren’t always sure exactly what you just saw. Was the injured catcher really sitting in a laundry basket while his teammates sprayed him with champagne? But you leave the room and everything somehow makes sense.

A losing locker room isn’t just different in tone. It feels emptier. Even with most players milling about – in a state of shock if a loss was particularly painful or unexpected – and dozens of reporters gently probing for answers that, if we’re really honest, no one has anyway. It is as if the anguish creates a wider gulf between the stalls, pushes apart the leather couches in the middle of the room, makes the 20 steps to the team dining room feel like 100.

This was the Nationals’ clubhouse after Friday’s devastating 9-7 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 of a National League Division Series. They had twice been within a strike of advancing to the NL Championship Series. They had twice been within a strike of creating a life-long memory – for themselves, yes, and for a growing fan base, too. It slipped away in horrifying fashion and the aftermath was on display in the oval, 3,200-square foot room the players have called home for over six months.

But there are ways that space shrinks again, ways to cut through the grief that comes with sudden endings. Here comes third-base coach Bo Porter, in one of his last acts as a Nats coach, walking up to second baseman Danny Espinosa and embracing him. Espinosa had a miserable series. He was 1-for-15 at the plate with seven strikeouts, charged with an error in Game 2 and stone robbed of a triple that same afternoon. Nothing went right for him and that weight must be carried into the offseason, where a potential surgery on his aching left shoulder looms.

Porter whispers words of encouragement and then departs with a handshake. It is the job of a coach, but one Porter no longer holds here. He was named the manager of his hometown Houston Astros last month and will immediately return there to begin a new chapter of his life. Endings aren’t just for players, after all.

A few lockers down, catcher Kurt Suzuki finds teammate Wilson Ramos, who we haven’t seen on the field since May 12 when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Ramos, still just 25, was the starter and clear No. 1 when the injury struck. In a way, the Nats were never whole without him. But they added Suzuki in an Aug. 3 trade with Oakland to stabilize the position and the move worked beautifully. Next spring the two could be competing for playing time. Suzuki, 29, is still under contract for another season. But he hugged Ramos, shook his hand and looked him in the eye: “We’re going to do this together next year,” Suzuki said and Ramos smiled and thanked him.

All around the room similar scenes played out. If there was anger unleashed, punched walls or overturned tables, it happened out of sight deeper inside the facility where true privacy is granted. Instead, pitcher Gio Gonzalez, who thought he was a winner up 6-3 when he left after five innings, hugs first baseman Adam LaRoche, a likely free agent next season whose status in Washington is in doubt.

Both general manager Mike Rizzo and owner Mark Lerner make the rounds, shaking hands and offering soft words to players. Gonzalez speaks with closer Drew Storen, the man on the mound when the Cardinals pushed across the four runs that took the game away. Storen sits at his locker like a man condemned, dutifully answers reporters’ questions about the worst night of his professional life, and then sits in silence staring straight ahead.

We’ve seen this before. In the visiting locker room at Madison Square Garden in New York last May, after a Game 7 loss to the Rangers in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Capitals star forward Alex Ovechkin sat in full uniform at his locker for 25 minutes, long after all questions were exhausted, unwilling or unable to shed his uniform for the last time. It is the ultimate act of finality for an athlete after a long, trying season. It is the last one he controls once the scoreboard has decreed there are no more games to play.

Meanwhile, high on the wall above the 50 lockers that ring the clubhouse were remnants of the plastic coverings that hang down and protect the articles inside from the victory celebration – the cards and pictures, the shoes and gloves, a teammates’ bobble head, the boxes of bubble gum, the bottle of protein powder, the wrist watch, the cell phone, the wallet. The plastic had instead been ripped from the wall in haste and transported, along with the beer and champagne, down the hall, the sad, enduring evidence of a party that never happened.

Follow me on Twitter @bmcnally14

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