Nats squander lead, lose Game 5

ap469191162442.jpg

Nats squander lead, lose Game 5

Updated at 4:45 a.m.

The remnants of a celebration that was supposed to happen lingered throughout a surreal clubhouse scene, plastic tarps either torn down in haste or left to hang from the ceiling, a temporary carpet covering the majority of the room so the regular flooring wouldn't get ruined amid the jubilee.

Somewhere out of public view, cases of champagne and beer bottles had been stashed away, removed from the premises before the participants could see them. A TV crew that had been in place and ready to broadcast the pandemonium raced to clear out of the room and hustle down the hallway to the visitors clubhouse, where the actual celebration would occur.

All that remained inside the Nationals' oval-shaped office was silence, punctuated by the occasional slap of players and coaches hugging each other and saying their goodbyes for the winter.

Baseball "is designed to break your heart," former commissioner Bart Giamatti once wrote, but the Nationals' 9-7 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 of the National League Division Series was less about heartbreak and more about heartburn, the sting of a never-been-seen turn of events too fresh in everyone's minds to allow for emotion to take over.

"There's a bad taste in my mouth," Drew Storen said. "That's gonna stay there for a couple of months. And it's probably never going to leave."

Ultimate responsibility for the largest blown lead in a winner-take-all ballgame in major-league history fell on Storen, who twice was one strike away from locking up a 7-5 victory and propelling the Nationals into a National League Championship Series date with the San Francisco Giants, yet allowed four runs in the top of the ninth via three hits and two walks to re-write the script.

But make no mistake: Storen's performance was only the final piece of the Nationals' slow death in this decisive game.

There was an inability to muster much of any offense after exploding for six early runs. There was an inability by starter Gio Gonzalez to pitch deep enough into the game to allow Davey Johnson to use his bullpen the way he would have preferred. There was the manager's on-the-fly decisions with his pitching staff, summoning relievers who had never been used quite like this in an attempt to close out the game and the series. And there were more runs surrendered by some of those relievers, giving Storen less room to breathe when he did finally get the ball for the ninth.

"We're all in the same boat right now," said Tyler Clippard, who served up Daniel Descalso's homer in the eighth. "Obviously Drew feels bad. I feel bad. We're all pretty devastated right now."

Storen, in the end, needed only one more strike. One measly strike to finish off what would have been a stirring victory and given the record crowd of 45,966 reason to ignite a celebration not experienced in Washington in three generations.

And he had five opportunities to throw that final strike, reaching a 2-2 count to Yadier Molina with two out and one on in the ninth and then a 1-2 count to David Freese moments later with two men now on base. Each time, Storen just missed with pitches that could theoretically have been called strikes by umpire Alfonso Marquez but clearly were out of the zone.

"They're good hitters," Storen said. "That's what makes them good: They have quality takes. It is what makes them successful."

"I really don't know what we would have done differently, to tell you the truth," catcher Kurt Suzuki said. "You tip your hat. They never give up. They've done it before."

They certainly have. These Cardinals staved off elimination four times last fall before winning their 11th World Series championship, and they've now done it twice in the last week, keeping their hopes of a repeat run alive.

They manage to do it year in and year out behind the performances of not only superstars but role players like Descalso and Pete Kozma, the middle infielders who capped this stunning rally with back-to-back, two-run singles off Storen.

Descalso's game-tying hit was a hard grounder up the middle, off a diving Ian Desmond's glove and into center field.

"He hit it good," Desmond said. "I did the best I could to get my glove on it. I didn't get it."

Kozma's game-winner was a poke down the right-field line, another two-run single that completed the rally and left the Nationals and their crowd in stunned silence.

"It's a crazy game," said Ryan Zimmerman, who wound up making the final out of the Nationals' season. "This game has taught us a lot. And one of the things it's taught us is to never take anything for granted. Nothing's over til it's over. You have to give that team over there some credit."

There is no shame in losing a best-of-five series to the defending champs, a veteran-laden team that has every reason to believe it can make another deep run. But the manner in which this series was lost and this 100-win season (98 in the regular season, two more in the playoffs) ended won't be easy for the Nationals to forget.

"This is not how I wanted my year to end," said rookie Bryce Harper, who four days shy of his 20th birthday recorded his first career postseason homer and triple. "I definitely wanted to play deeper into the postseason. I'm not ready to go home and take off that uniform."

Despite their dominating record, the Nationals never did do much in easy fashion. So it was perhaps appropriate that the decisive showdown of a meat grinder of this NLDS proved to be the most harrowing of the Nationals' 167 games to date in 2012.

That the outcome of this game was left to be decided late was remarkable in and of itself, considering the way the Nationals stormed out of the gates to take what appeared to be a commanding lead.

If there was any question whether it's possible to ride momentum from one ballgame into another, the Nationals certainly appeared to answer that in definitive fashion to start Game 5. After Gonzalez got through a scoreless top of the first, the top of the Nationals lineup put an immediate hurting on Adam Wainwright.

Seven pitches in, Wainwright had served up a double to Jayson Werth, an RBI triple to Harper and a two-run homer to Zimmerman that left the sellout crowd roaring nearly as loud as it did for Werth's walk-off heroics in Game 4.

And the Nationals didn't let up against the veteran right-hander, posting three more runs in the bottom of the third, ignited by none other than the youngest player on the field.

Harper had struggled throughout the series, looking every bit like a 19-year-old overwhelmed by the bright lights of a stage he had never seen before. But manager Davey Johnson has known all along Harper has too much talent and ability to thrive in big moments to be held down for long, so he stuck with the rookie despite his 1-for-18 numbers.

And sure enough, the kid delivered when it really counted, crushing a pitch from Wainwright deep into the right-field bleachers top open the bottom of the third. In the process, Harper joined Andruw Jones as the only teenagers ever to hit a postseason homer.

And still the Nationals weren't done. A Zimmerman double kept the pressure on, and two batters later, Michael Morse (who had looked feeble at the plate through most of the series, still battling a wrist injury) destroyed a first-pitch fastball from Wainwright into the left-field bleachers.

The scoreboard read 6-0, the home dugout exploded and the sellout crowd went bezerk, perhaps some in the ballpark beginning to research airfares to San Francisco for Games 3 through 5 of the NLCS.

Anyone who watched the Nationals all season, however, knew it was never quite that easy. This team had been known to burst out of the gates, then go stone-cold silent at the plate for inning after inning. Which is precisely what happened. They may have knocked out Wainwright after 2 1/3 innings, but the Nationals proceeded to make 10 straight outs against the St. Louis bullpen.

"We talked about it during the game: We were up six runs, but we said we need to keep it going," cleanup hitter Adam LaRoche said. "As good as our pen is, we need to keep pouring it on and doing what we can."

All the while, Gonzalez began to morph into his Game 1 self, especially during a harrowing fifth inning in which the lefty issued three walks and a wild pitch, letting two runs score in the process.

Gonzalez did come through with a couple of big pitches when he needed them most, inducing a comebacker from Matt Holliday with the bases loaded and one out, then getting Molina to fly out to right to end the inning and leave the bases loaded. But at 99 pitches, his night was over, forcing manager Davey Johnson to try to coax four innings from a bullpen that had to once again be pieced together in last-minute fashion.

That included a surprise appearance by Game 3 starter Edwin Jackson in the top of the seventh, resulting in one run. It included Clippard in the eighth, resulting in another run on Descalso's homer into the right-field bullpen.

And it included Storen in the ninth, entrusted with a 7-5 lead that felt safe at the time but quickly turned tenuous as the right-hander struggled to keep the ball over the plate, producing two of the eight walks issued by Washington pitchers in the game.

"With all the adversity we've gone through this year, and then to give up that many free passes," Johnson sighed, "that's not the way you win ballgames. It's tough. We've had a great year overcoming a lot of hardship, and to not go after them at the end was not fun to watch."

Especially the painful ninth inning, as Storen tried in vain five times to make the one pitch that would send the Nationals deeper into the postseason and send the crowd into pandemonium.

That pitch never came. And because what ensued happened in such rapid-fire fashion, the Nationals were left to gather in silence in a clubhouse that had been prepped for a celebration but had suddenly been transformed into a room full of hugs, red eyes and farewells for the winter.

"It's always tough when you can see the finish line and taste it and you're an out or two, or a pitch or two, away and you don't win it," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "It's a testament to this game. You've got to get all 27 outs before you can pack up the bats. And especially against a club as playoff-tested and battle-tested as those guys over there. ...

"We don't know what to do tomorrow. It's Saturday, and we don't have a game."

Harvey struggling, Murphy thriving as Nats-Mets rivalry heats up

chasehughes052416refframe_1.jpg

Harvey struggling, Murphy thriving as Nats-Mets rivalry heats up

The NL East division will not be decided in the month of May, but the contrast in fortunes for the Nats and Mets was dramatic on Tuesday night at Nationals Park.

Yes, the Nats only lead the Mets by 1 1/2 games in the division after homering them to death in a 7-4 series-tying victory. But they beat them once again with a huge contribution from ex-Met Daniel Murphy and once again at the expense of beleaguered super hero Matt Harvey.

From the moment Murphy left the Mets to sign a three-year deal with the Nationals, it became part of the fabric of one of baseball's best contemporary rivalries. And the way he's played not just overall this season, but in head-to-head matchups with the Mets, has only stoked that fire.

Murphy went 2-for-4 with his seventh homer of the year on Tuesday night and now has two homers in four at-bats against Harvey. He has two RBI in each of his last three games against his former team and has quickly become a pest for the organization he spent 10 distinguished years with.

Harvey, on the other hand, has allowed 11 earned runs combined in his last two starts, both against the Nationals. He is in the midst of a shocking downfall and the Nats are playing a hands-on role.

Only four times did a Nationals hitter swing and miss at a pitch Harvey threw on Tuesday. That matched a season-low. The three homers he surrendered matched a career-high. This is all just one start after the Nats scored nine runs (6 ER) on Harvey, which set a new career mark.

“His velocity started out good," manager Dusty Baker said. "He was 95, 96 miles per hour, then his velocity dropped to 92, 93. His slider wasn’t as sharp as it usually is. You gotta get them when they’re down.”

Murphy, on the other hand, is carrying over the power surge the Mets themselves witnessed last fall. After hitting seven homers in 14 postseason games, Murphy has seven in 45 outings this season. That puts him on pace for 25 homers, nearly double his career-best of 14 set just last year.

Having spent five years around Harvey in New York, Murphy has a unique perspective of his former teammate now facing him from the other side.

"It's tough to tell," Murphy said. "I have all the confidence in the world that he's gonna throw the ball well... I hope it's not against us, or me personally. But we know how good he is, we saw it all year last year. And again, as a pitcher or a hitter, we're never as far away as we think."

Murphy isn't the only player on the Nats who wishes Harvey well, despite his presence in the NL East.

"I know he’s still going to be their go-to guy coming down the stretch and coming down the stretch these guys are going to be right there," center fielder Ben Revere said. 

"Fastball seems the same. He’s throwing strikes. It’s baseball. We’ve been getting the key knocks. Nothing we can do about it. Just goes to show that every pitcher in the big leagues is going to have some rough stretches."

"His stuff is electric. To me he's still the same pitcher that comes after you," third baseman Anthony Rendon said. "Like anybody else, you go through a rough patch, and I'm pretty sure he'll find his way out like every other good pitcher does."

Murphy's two hits on Tuesday - the second against reliever Antonio Bastardo - gave him his 23rd multi-hit game of the season. That means more than half of his games this year have featured multiple hits. He's now batting an MLB-best .392. Only one batter (Yoenis Cespedes) on the Mets is hitting better than .283 at this point in the season.

“I've seen some pretty good hitters, George Brett, Tony Gwynn, Paul Molitor," Baker said. "[Murphy] hasn’t had a down time the entire year. He’s concentrating. He’s at a very high concentration level. When he’s getting his pitch he’s not missing many. Murph’s been the acquisition of the year in baseball. I’m just glad that we have him.”

Harvey's matchups with the Nats over his last two starts have put his career at a momentary crossroads. After his last outing, Tuesday's start was in question. The Mets ultimately decided to keep him in the rotation, but what about his next start? Will he take the mound?

His previous outing was so bad it convinced Mets fans - who booed him at home five days ago - to organize a social media campaign to bus droves of New Yorkers down to D.C. for Tuesday's game. About a hundred of them gathered in right field and were heard loudly before the game and through the first several innings with chants in support of Harvey.

By the fifth inning there were chants of 'Harrrr-veyyy' coming from the crowd, but not from Mets fans. Nationals fans turned the tables and made for yet another embarrassing moment for the Dark Knight of Gotham.

Harvey, for what it's worth, declined to speak to reporters after his latest disaster. Not facing the New York media who are ready to pounce all over you? That may feel good for a night, but it won't go over well in the coming days. Might be wise to avoid the tabloids, Matt.

Strasburg notches another win as Nats rough up Harvey again

usatsi_9307583.jpg
USA TODAY Sports

Strasburg notches another win as Nats rough up Harvey again

Postgame analysis of the Nationals' 7-4 victory over the Mets on Tuesday night: 

How it happened: With both Stephen Strasburg and Matt Harvey looking sharp through the game's first three innings, this looked every bit like the pitchers duel we were expecting to see last week when the two aces faced off in New York. 

But like last Thursday's game, the Nats eventually pounced on Harvey and ended his night earlier than he would have liked. Their home run barrage started in the fourth inning, when Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon delivered back-to-back solo shots to give Washington a 2-1 lead. The next inning, after Bryce Harper hit a sac fly to make it 3-1, Daniel Murphy (who else?) delivered the big blow with a a two-run shot to give the Nats a 5-1 cushion and essentially yank Harvey from the game. 

After the Mets gone a run back in the seventh, Ben Revere hit his first home run as a member of the Nats to extend the lead to 6-2. The long ball parade continued in the eighth as Wilson Ramos got into the act with a solo shot. 

What it means: The Nats were able to bounce back after Monday night's blowout loss. At 28-18, they're 1 1/2 games up on the Mets for first place in the NL East. While it's clear that these are the two best teams in the division, there's plenty of season left before it can be determined which club is truly superior.  

Strasburg extends winning streak: It's pretty simple at this point: if Strasburg takes the mound, the Nats win. That's been the case now for 14 consecutive starts — extending a franchise record. Once again, Strasburg was solid against the Mets, allowing two earned runs on four hits over 6 2/3 innings. His 11 strikeouts on the night marked the fifth time this season that he has registered double digit punch outs in a start. Strasburg is now 8-0 on the year with a 2.79 ERA and 86 strikeouts. Not too shabby. 

Nats rough up Harvey again: For the second time in less than a week, Washington's offense put up a few crooked numbers on the scoreboard to chase Harvey early in the game. Including Tuesday's outing, the Mets struggling ace has allowed 14 runs on 16 hits over 7 2/3 innings against the Nats in two starts. Ouch. If Harvey winds up temporarily removed from New York's rotation, Mets fans can thank their division rivals from D.C. 

Murphy keeps hurting his old club: With yet another solid performance, the Nats second baseman might be making the Mets wish they would have kept him around a little while longer. In five games against his former team, Murphy is hitting 8-for-21 (.380) with two home runs — both coming off Harvey — and 6 RBI. 

Up next: The rubber match in this series will be a matinee tilt on Wednesday at 1:05 p.m. The Nats will send Tanner Roark (3-3, 2.89 ERA) to oppose Mets rookie Steven Matz (6-1, 2.81 ERA).

Dusty Baker says Nats have to 'ride the wave' of Strasburg's win streak

natsmetscutin052316refframe_1.jpg

Dusty Baker says Nats have to 'ride the wave' of Strasburg's win streak

The formula has been a simple one for the Nationals of late: if Stephen Strasburg takes the mound, Washington will emerge victorious. It's been the case in the 27-year-old right hander's last 13 outings, a streak that sets a new franchise record for wins during a pitcher's starts. 

Whether or not Strasburg's remarkable run is sustainable, Dusty Baker is willing to enjoy it for however long it lasts. 

"Whatever Stras is doing," the Nats manager said, "you just ride it. It's like surfing. You ride the wave to the beach and jump off and just catch another wave."

Strasburg is 7-0 on the year with a 2.80 ERA — a very good mark, but still not up there with the National League's elite arms such as Jake Arrieta (1.29) and Clayton Kershaw (1.48). Baker said that one of the reasons the Nats have flourished with Strasburg on the mound is that he continues to be the beneficiary of good run support. Take his last outing, for instance, where the offense jumped on Mets starter Matt Harvey in the third inning to create a 9-1 cushion to pitch through the rest of the way. 

But Baker was quick to point out that, run support aside, Strasburg is displaying an important trait that many aces around the game show when they're on a roll. 

"I don't care what it is, he's still 7-0," Baker said. "I'm sure everybody would trade to do that.....part of the reason he's 7-0 is because he's been out there without his best stuff and still managed to keep us in the ballgame until our offense came through."

If Strasburg is to extend the streak to 14 wins in a row, he'll need to do so against a Mets lineup that will get a second look at him in less than a week. That scenario didn't work out so well for rotation mate Gio Gonzalez, who was throttled Monday night for seven earned runs after faring well against New York's offense just a week ago.

But, sticking with the wave analogy, Baker says Strasburg and the Nats should adopt the surfer's mentality of not worrying about impending disaster. 

"If you think about falling off, you gonna fall," Baker said. "So don't think about falling, don't think about when it's going to end."