They played 162 games and won 98 of them. They grabbed a National League East division title and provided Washington, D.C. with its first playoff baseball game in 79 years. They had a 20-game winner, a teenage phenom who lived up to his hype, endured an honest-to-goodness baseball controversy with Stephen Strasburg’s shutdown and multiple feel-good stories – from Adam LaRoche’s comeback to Ian Desmond’s breakthrough.
Eventually the Nationals will understand all of that and appreciate it. But after Friday’s heartbreaking 9-7 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals ended their season in shocking fashion it will take a while.
“You know what? The way I see it is we did a great job this season. Washington got what they wanted. They saw something new,” pitcher Gio Gonzalez said. “We’ll move on, and it’s going to be fun the next couple years.”
But this isn’t the kind of loss that you just shake off after a few days or weeks. It’s not too dramatic to say it will stick with this group of players long after their careers are finished. The pain will diminish. At some point this offseason there will come a time when they are ready for spring training. But not yet.
“I can say that, yeah,” Desmond said about the loss maybe heightening his anticipation for Viera. “But at this point golf is looking pretty good.”
Several players – and even general manager Mike Rizzo – noted the learning process that comes with playing in the postseason for the first time. The Cardinals, defending World Series champs, had that experience and understood what it meant to play games at this level.
But not everyone in Washington’s clubhouse agrees with that. They just don’t believe that St. Louis possesses some innate “Cardinalness” that allows it to come through in tight postseason games – as it did repeatedly last season on the way to that championship – and that can be studied and adopted. The opportunity was there now for the Nats to make a run of their own and they fell short. No amount of “learning” or “experience” will ever really make up for it.
“I think so, but not right now,” said closer Drew Storen, the man who gave up the four ninth inning runs that put the Cardinals ahead in Game 5. “Got a bad taste in my mouth, but that’s going to stay there a couple months. It’s probably never going to leave.”
In the end, the best bet for the Nats is to accept this loss and move on from it. To appreciate the good things they did accomplish, hold them dear, and return to Viera in February ready to play the 2013 season, not rehash the awful way 2012 ended. But that, like any true grieving process, is not one that happens overnight.
“It leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, no doubt. And that’s the thing – they need to remember this feeling [for] when you’re in this situation again,” said veteran utility man Mark DeRosa. “It’s not easy to win the whole thing and when you do that’s why you see the players celebrate the way they celebrate. Because a lot of things have to go your way.”
Follow me on Twitter @bmcnally14