Welcome to October, Nationals fans.
Full disclosure: I am one of those fans, one of the thousands who awoke this morning with a profound sense of loss as last night's excitement gave way swiftly to shock. It is a new feeling.
Carved indelibly now into the collective memory of every Washington fan are two opposing moments: the euphoria of Jayson Werth on Thursday working a 13-pitch at bat that culminated in a walk-off home run, our $126 million outfielder soaring onto home plate in front of a delirious crowd; and an even louder crowd, anticipating the team's first National League Championship Series berth, falling silent on Friday as a 6-0 lead evaporated as the Cardinals rallied for four runs in the ninth inning.
There was a sick sense of time folding back onto itself. This indomitable Cardinals team was twice a strike away from elimination -- just as it was in last year's World Series -- and twice rallied to stay alive, to see another pitch, to extend the red-clad crowd's agony.
This was not a game we were supposed to lose. The Nationals lineup, so potent all year but dormant throughout this series, finally broke through. The first inning began with a trio of extra base hits and a double-triple-home run; Bryce Harper, who looked lost all series, finally flashed his base running fearlessness in digging for that triple and hammered a home run in the third. Mike Morse, the late-blooming slugger who looked just as exposed as Harper, added a blast a few batters later.
It seemed like justice after watching the Nationals get battered in games 2 and 3, like our fortunes were finally starting to turn. But the Cardinals had been here before, and they kept grinding. A record crowd, the largest in Nationals history, was ready to explode in celebration; instead, they watched it slip away.
It seemed fitting that third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the home-grown franchise cornerstone who has endured the years of hopelessness, swung through the final strike. Zimmerman has been instrumental in leading this young Washington franchise from being a doormat to being a contender, stoically doing his job through the hundreds of games that preceded this new era of hope and ambition.
Werth's shot on Thursday marked a new plateau in that evolution, a victory that will persist in the sparse annals of team lore. We've had our moments, but none approach the significance of that ball departing Werth's bat and ascending through the autumn air.
Friday night was something else entirely: a reminder that with success comes suffering. It is a different kind of pain than watching downtrodden Nationals teams slog through 90-loss seasons; those squads could frustrate, but they didn't have the capacity to produce Thursday's transcendence, or Friday's misery.
Such is the spectrum of October baseball, from joy to heartbreak. Watching the Rangers lose last year, I felt bad for an immensely gifted team and its fans, who had an elusive title snatched from them. But it was abstract, something I appreciated as a fan of the game. Now, I feel it in my bones.
Get used to it. This is a young, talented, hungry team that is going to be a good for a few years, and another postseason run is a strong possibility.
But with that promise comes the potential for moments of enduring triumph and of crushing failure. Not even in equal measure -- only one team, obviously, can win it all.
Beckoning from across a long, icy winter, another spring awaits. This morning, it almost feels like too much to look forward to it. But I'm heartened to know I'm not the first person who will struggle to rekindle hope for a team that's just torn my heart out.
That's just baseball.
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