MLB’s return in 2005 brought the hope of memorable milestones for a new generation of local baseball fans. Ten seasons later, the Nationals have delivered the second such milestone in their brief playoff history. Sadly for local fans, both milestones concern epic collapses with two outs in the ninth inning of a home playoff game.
The Nationals lost the longest postseason game in major league history by the score of 2-1, putting the squad which led the National League in victories one game away from playoff elimination. The game, which had a 5:37 PM start time, ended the next day at 12:02 AM after a full 18 innings had been completed. A telling indicator of the game’s length was the singing by some fans of “Take me out to the ballgame” in the middle of the 14th inning for what was essentially a second 7th inning stretch.
The loss immediately drew comparisons from Nationals fans to the team’s other record-breaking playoff collapse, which occurred at home in the last game of the NLDS two years ago. Just as then-manager Davey Johnson’s use of Edwin Jackson in that contest troubled fans during and after the game, rookie manager Matt Williams’ decision to pull starter Jordan Zimmermann with two outs in the bottom of the ninth could rile fans for a generation and maybe more should the Nats fail to somehow rally from their 0–2 deficit in this series.
Zimmermann, fresh from of his no-hitter last Sunday, had been cruising in Saturday night’s contest and had retired 21 consecutive batters before issuing a walk with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. As Zimmermann’s pitch count had crested the century mark with that walk, Williams made the calculus that it was time to bring in reliever Drew Storen to record the game’s final out.
Storen, of course, had twice been one strike away from saving a 7-5 lead and the NLDS title two years ago, only to give up four runs in that memorable and record-breaking collapse. This year, Storen had been the comeback story for the Nationals, having won back the support of both the fans and management as closer. Once again, however, Storen failed to get the final out, and the game went to extra innings.
Stymied for most of NLDS Game 1 save for a couple of late solo homers, the Nationals’ offense went as cold in the extra innings as the swirling, cutting wind inside Nationals Park. Too often, it appeared that most of the lineup was pressing and fishing for the one shot to end the game rather than producing a run.
It was no help to the offensive strategy was that the manager had been ejected following an argument with the homeplate umpire, who had just tossed second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera, who had just tossed his helmet and bat in dispute of some borderline strike calls. Meanwhile, the Nationals bullpen performed admirably, shutting down the Giants for eight innings.
Because of the depleted numbers in the bullpen and on the bench, regular-season starter Tanner Roark not only pitched but had to bat as well. Roark gave up a run in his second inning of work, and Jayson Werth’s flyout in the bottom of the 18th — the equivalent of a second full baseball game — ended the contest and put the Nationals one game from elimination.
A home loss in 18 innings after being one out away from a victory would be disheartening to any team. Given the Nationals’ previous playoff collapse, it’s going to be hard for the team to shake this off not only on this postseason but also heading into next year, especially in the midst of many hard roster decisions which need to be made soon by management and ownership.
Considering the overall disappointment that local pro sports have been over the last 20 years — complete with gut wrenching postseason losses (the RG III knee game and the Nats two years ago) and epic playoff collapses (Caps, a dozen times over), DC sports fans have been hoping the Nationals could be the exception to the recent rule. Unfortunately, the Nats have joined the rest of the local teams in finding new and excruciatingly frustrating ways to lose, dashing hopes and expectations, and leaving your fan base numb.