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NATIONALS: Ninth-Inning Collapse Leads To Premature End To Season
WASHINGTON – Ryan Zimmerman homered to right center field. So, too, did Bryce Harper. Michael Morse sent his to left.
In a span of three innings Friday night, the Washington Nationals made an emphatic statement to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Over the next six, the Cardinals made theirs.
St. Louis gradually chiseled away at a six-run lead, and the Cardinals continued their chase of a second consecutive National League pennant on Friday with a 9-7, come-from-behind victory over Washington in Game 5 of the National League Division Series at Nationals Park.
“I don’t think anybody saw it coming,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said.
The Nationals, in the playoffs for the first time since moving from Montreal seven years ago, were pursuing the opportunity to bring Washington its first World Series title since 1924. That chance will now have to wait, regardless of however improbable it looked for three and a half hours Friday night.
Drew Storen, on with a two-run lead in the top of the ninth, surrendered a two-run single to Daniel Descalso and another to Pete Kozma despite twice working a hitter to a full count.
It capped a night of frustration for the Nationals’ pitchers, who helped the team secure the best record in the major leagues during the regular season but were remarkably volatile throughout the series.
“We had it right there,” Storen said. “The most disappointing thing, honestly, is that I just let these guys down … To kind of come down to that, it’s pretty tough.”
Gio Gonzalez allowed three runs on five hits in five innings, and though he started strong with a boisterous, record-setting Nationals Park crowd of 45,966 supporting him, he began to unravel in the fourth inning.
Outscored 23-9 over the first four games, Washington used the momentum of a ninth-inning walk-off home run by Jayson Werth in Game 4 on Thursday for early ammunition.
Werth, the leadoff batter, doubled into the left field corner, Harper hit a triple off the left center field wall and Zimmerman homered, giving Washington a quick 3-0 lead before Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright recorded an out.
Harper, 1-for-18 in the first four games of the series, came through again in the third inning, leading off with a home run to left center field.
Zimmerman doubled, and after LaRoche struck out, Michael Morse dropped a two-run home run into the visitors’ bullpen in left center – a hit that knocked Wainwright from the game and gave Washington what, in a game of such magnitude, ordinarily would have been an insurmountable 6-0 lead.
But Gonzalez, who earned the Game 1 win despite feeling incredible pressure, began to struggle again. St. Louis picked up in a run in the fourth when Matt Holliday doubled in Carlos Beltran, and a lack of control at the start of the fifth led to Gonzalez loading the bases without any outs.
He allowed one run on a wild pitch and walked in another, and only a flyout to Werth in right field by Yadier Molina with the bases loaded saved the Cardinals from inflicting more damage.
Edwin Jackson, who struggled in his Game 3 start, allowed a run in a seventh-inning relief appearance, and Tyler Clippard surrendered a home run to Descalso in the eighth.
Kurt Suzuki answered, giving the Nationals an extra cushion when he drove home LaRoche with a single up the middle off St. Louis closer Jason Motte.
But Storen, who returned as closer in the final weeks of the season after preseason surgery cost him nearly four months, couldn’t close the door.
Carlos Beltran led off the inning with a double before Matt Holliday and Allen Craig struck out, but he walked both Yadier Molina and Freese before the Cardinals tied the score and then took the lead.
The swing was deflating. Motte retired Washington in the bottom of the ninth with relative ease, and the Cardinals mobbed their closer on the mound while the Nationals, and their fans, sat in stunned silence.
“Every inning, the guys were just constantly talking about, ‘Hey, we’re going to do something special here,’ and it wasn’t just a bunch of cheerleading,” said first-year Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. “They believed it.”
Harper and Zimmerman each went 2-for-5 with two runs and a home run, and Suzuki, who entered 1-for-13 in the series, was 3-for-4 with the eighth-inning RBI.
Wainwright lasted just 2 1/3 innings and gave up seven hits and six runs while striking out five. Motte earned the win, allowing only three hits.
While St. Louis unexpectedly celebrated the trip to San Francisco, which it would make overnight to prepare for a Sunday start to the best-of-seven series, the Nationals had to come to grips with a premature end to their season not far down the hall.
Plastic tarp meant to protect the players’ lockers during a champagne celebration was either rolled up or halfway torn down, and for several minutes after the end of the game, the only sound breaking the silence of the clubhouse was that of consolatory handshakes and hugs.
“The way I see it is we did a great job this season,” Gonzalez said. “[The people of] Washington got what they wanted. They saw something new. We’ll move on, and it’s going to be fun the next couple years.”
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