ST. LOUIS -- They wanted to get this thing over with.
Sure, it's always nice to celebrate at home in front of your own fans, but the Nationals have been inching toward their first-ever division title for quite a while now, and each day that passes without them finishing it off feels like a wasted day, another day in which Davey Johnson feels forced to play all of his regulars instead of giving them a pre-postseason breather.
So the Nationals desperately wanted to celebrate at Busch Stadum Sunday afternoon, either via their own win over the Cardinals or an admittedly unlikely Braves loss at Turner Field.
In the end, they got neither. Atlanta cruised past the Mets again. And the Nationals were ambushed by St. Louis' potent lineup, with starter Ross Detwiler tagged for seven early runs and Chien-Ming Wang adding kerosene to the fire with an ugly performance out of the bullpen.
That all added up to a lopsided, 10-4 loss and (more importantly) no reduction of the Nationals' magic number. Now leading the Braves by three games with three to play, they'll head home and hope now to clinch the the NL East on Monday against a Phillies club that was already eliminated from postseason contention over the weekend.
It's not the scenario Johnson envisioned when he filled out his lineup card Sunday morning, all eight regulars in there, including catcher Kurt Suzuki (who started behind the plate for the ninth straight day).
Johnson had been saying all week he wouldn't hesitate to use up all of his best bullets, as much as necessary, to clinch the division. After that, he'd start resting guys. But a few of his managerial decisions in this game brought that sentiment into question a bit.
Which isn't to say Johnson was the No. 1 reason for this loss. The blame begins with Detwiler, who in the biggest start of his young career fell flat.
Pitching 40 miles from his hometown of Wentzville, Mo., for the first time as a big-leaguer, Detwiler entered this one with plenty of emotions running through his slender frame, knowing he'd have a chance to pitch the Nationals to a division crown in front of dozens of family and friends whose allegiances might have been a bit torn.
Perhaps the 26-year-old lefty couldn't harness all that emotion, though, because he had all sorts of trouble finding the strike zone. He escaped the first inning without allowing a run, but then issued back-to-back walks to open the bottom of the second. He appeared to get himself out of the jam by inducing a tailor-made, 4-6-3 double play grounder out of Daniel Descalso, but Danny Espinosa booted the ball, everyone was safe and the inning was prolonged.
It really was prolonged, because Detwiler responded by serving up a two-run double to Pete Kozma, an RBI single to Jon Jay and then a two-run homer to Carlo Beltran. Just like that, the Nationals trailed 5-0 and Detwiler sauntered around the mound with a look of disgust on his face.
Johnson let his starter take the mound again for the bottom of the third, but he already had Wang warming in the bullpen in case of trouble. Which Detwiler immediately got himself into, issuing a one-out walk and then surrendering another single to Descalso. Johnson strode to the mound, took the ball from his starter and handed it to Wang.
The Taiwanese right-hander has little experience as a reliever, and he hasn't been particularly effective in that role this season, but this might have been his worst performance to date. Wang's first pitch went to the backstop, letting a run score. His next pitch? Also to the backstop, letting a runner advance to third (he then scored moments later on a sacrifice fly, extending the Cardinals' lead to 7-0).
Just when things looked their bleakest, though, the Nationals came storming back in a last-ditch attempt to make a game of this. Bryce Harper led off the fourth with his 22nd homer of the season, leaving him two shy of Tony Conigliaro's all-time record for a teenager. Adam LaRoche singled. Ian Desmond doubled him home. And Espinosa atoned for his earlier error by blasting a two-run homer to right, trimming the lead to 7-4.
His team now trailing by only three runs with five innings still to go and Cardinals starter Lance Lynn on the ropes, Johnson surprisingly let Wang hit for himself with two outs and a man on base. With some awkward hacks at the plate, Wang not surprisingly struck out to kill that potential rally, then retook the mound for the bottom of the fourth hoping to stop the bleeding.
Instead, Wang opened the inning by walking Jay, then served up a two-run homer to Beltran (the veteran's second of the day, meriting a curtain call).
The Nationals now trailed 9-4, having frittered away whatever momentum they had picked up the previous inning. Nobody was warming in the bullpen. Wang was allowed to pitch another 1 23 innings before Johnson finally re-emerged from the dugout to take the ball.