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STEVE DeSHAZO: Nats hope scars breed future success

WASHINGTON—Less that 24 hours after the Washington Nationals squandered a 9–0 lead and lost 10–9 to the Atlanta Braves on July 9, they rebounded with a 5–2 victory that may have saved their season.

They won’t get a similar chance for redemption for Friday night’s stunning 9–7 loss to St. Louis in the decisive game of their National League division series until spring training opens next February.

While the Cardinals jetted west to face San Francisco in the opener of Sunday’s NL Championship Series, the Nationals will have four long months to stew over what might have been and digest what actually occurred.

“The finality of the playoffs is just that,” general manager Mike Rizzo said in a funereal clubhouse early Saturday morning. “We don’t know what to do tomorrow.”

What the Nationals probably spent a sleepless night doing was reviewing how they blew a 6–0 third-inning lead and a 7–5 ad-vantage when they were one strike away from advancing.

How the bats went mostly silent after blasting five extra-base hits in the first three turns at bat. How a bullpen that had been a team strength all year couldn’t close the deal against a patient, veteran team that didn’t chase pitches outside the strike zone.

“The last three outs are the hardest in baseball,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “I don’t know why it’s harder than the other eight innings. The craziest things happen.”

Maybe, but what also happens is that inexperienced playoff closers like Drew Storen try to be too fine at times. Storen issued two of the eight walks allowed by Nationals pitchers Friday night, and also served up a pair of two-run singles in the ninth inning—one to Daniel Descalso to tie the game and another to No. 8 hitter Pete Kozma to win it.

“We had it right there, and the most disappointing thing, honestly, is that I just let these guys down,” Storen said.

There’s no rule that says teams have to be humbled in the postseason before they can savor success. The Florida Marlins and Arizona Diamondbacks each won World Series in their first tries.

But Friday night’s stunning reversal of fortune proved that the Nationals’ resolve hasn’t caught up with their immense talent. And it should stand as a painful lesson for a franchise that enjoyed a breakthrough season (98 wins and D.C.’s first postseason appearance since 1933).

“There’s too much good to hang your head over one game,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, one of many

Nationals tasting postseason play for the first time.

They don’t have the rings they’d hoped for. But the Nationals now have something of value: the battle scars of a team that came tantalizingly close to success and instead suffered the sting of sudden death.

“We’ll come to spring training next year and be more battle tested. And young players will have grown up and they’ll be veterans. We’ll know how to react to the playoff atmosphere,” Rizzo said. “It’s always tough when you can see the finish line and taste it.”

Or, as Storen put it: “Got a bad taste in my mouth, but that’s going to stay there a couple months. It’s probably never going to leave, and it’s going to motivate me and fire me up every time I do go out there.”

That’s the healthy reaction, but young teams have been devastated by losses like Friday’s and never recovered to reach their potential.

Still, while there are no guarantees in life or baseball, the Nationals should be pretty good again in 2013 and beyond. They have most of their lineup under contract for the next several seasons; the most notable exception is LaRoche, a 100-RBI first baseman who said he’d like to return. (Rizzo said the feeling is mutual.)

The pitching rotation may or may not have Edwin Jackson, but it will have a full season (including

playoffs, if necessary) of Stephen Strasburg, whose absence from, and its effect on, this series will be forever debated.

They hope manager Davey Johnson, who turns 70 in January, decides to return for another run. Said Desmond: “He’d better be back. I don’t know what we’d do without him.”

And the Nationals plan to open 2013 with a collective chip on their shoulders.

“If things like this don’t kill you, they make you stronger,” Desmond said. “If we get any stronger, we’re gonna be pretty good.”

Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443

sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

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