Nationals Park was packed, fans were five deep in some standing room sections and frenzied towel-waving rooters were announcing their presence with authority.
Then, in the span of a couple of innings, the fervent enthusiasm was sucked right out of South Capitol Street, leaving a Nationals Park-record crowd of 45,017 mostly disappointed, dazed and silent in what became an 8-0 defeat in the pivotal third game of a best-of-five National League Divison Series.
Before they could even get into the game, Nationals fans were reduced to a non-factor.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheney made sure to caution his club - especially his younger players - not to get too caught up in the pregame excitement that accompanied the first postseason baseball game in the District of Columbia since 1933. The Cards listened, then went out and made sure the crowd was nothing more than an afterthought.
“There’s a buzz all over this city, there’s a buzz inside the stadium,” Matheney said after St. Louis grabbed a two games to one lead. “We just go out and play our game and try not to let that get in the way, whether there’s a lot of life or no life at all.”
And there was life, at least at the outset.
Early on, delirious red-clad Nationals fans yelled loudly as Edwin Jackson got the first two outs in the first inning on a sharp grounder to short and a pop to second. Then came Matt Holliday’s single and Allen Craig’s run-scoring double into the corner in left field, which hushed the crowd. Jackson prevented any further damage by getting Yadier Molina to hit an inning-ending grounder.
Jayson Werth’s leadoff single in the bottom of the inning made them roar and when Bryce Harper swung at a 1-2 sinker from Chris Carptenter, the boisterous throng reacted to the sound off the bat, fully expecting the ball to clear the wall in right field. Instead, a harmless fly ball nestled into the mitt of right fielder Carlos Beltran short of the warning track. The multitude sighed in unison at an opportunity missed and the Nats didn’t really give them a reason to get very excited from that point on.
A crowd never so desperate to explode was instead quickly and emphatically muted. What Harper’s out didn’t do to quiet them, the three-run homer by Pete Kozma in the bottom of the second surely did.
After the game, someone suggested to Carpenter that the Cardinals, the defending World Series champs, were merely exercising the scads of postseason experience they possess against a team making its first playoff appearance. Carpenter wasn’t buying into it, pointing out that the Nationals weren’t total neophytes and that manager Davey Johnson has skippered a club to the World Series.
“I know some of the guys over there and they have got guys that have enough experience, never mind what their manager has, to be able to make these guys understand what’s going on in this situation,” Carpenter said. “Does actual experience in the game count? Yeah, but everybody’s excited and everybody has emotions, including myself when I went out there today. It’s how you deal with those.”
The Nationals were left to ponder what might have been, and in a quiet clubhouse after the game, first baseman Adam LaRoche lamented that the Nats missed a chance to get to Carpenter early.
“He’s not one to go melt down on you,” LaRoche said. “He’s been there enough. You can get to him, but he’s not quitting. You have to keep pouring it on. It’s tough, obviously.”
From the bullpen, closer Drew Storen listened as the crowd reached a fever pitch early on. By the time he worked a 1-2-3 ninth inning, you could have heard a pin drop and once-screaming fans were already trying to beat the crowds to the Navy Yards Metro station.
“There’s a lot of other things going on in D.C. at 1 o’clock in the middle of the week, but we had a great turnout and they were all excited,” Storen said. “Hopefully, we’ll give them something to cheer about in the next couple of days.”