First the collapse, then the disbelief and disappointment

As the St. Louis Cardinals celebrated the most improbable of comebacks in the Nationals Park infield, outfielder Jayson Werth knelt on the top step of the home dugout, his head bent in a cross between disappointment and disbelief. Behind him, stunned fans watched a celebration they never expected to see unfold, their plans to whoop it up after reaching the National League Division Series short-circuited.

For the seconds immediately following the Cardinals’ 9-7 win over the Nationals early Saturday morning, both a team and its fans seemed wholly unprepared to deal with the disappointment that was rapidly unfolding before them.

A few minutes later, in a somber home clubhouse, general manager Mike Rizzo went from locker stall to locker stall, embracing his charges with brief words of consolation and appreciation. It was a scene with funereal overtones, polite snippets exchanged between friends because there really weren’t words to aptly capture the emotion of the moment no one wanted to confront.

Asked if the Nationals would allow themselves any satisfaction for a stellar season once the pain of a heartbreaking loss subsided, first baseman Adam LaRoche softly but firmly dismissed any notion of fulfillment.

“Honestly, I don’t think so,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper. “I think we all knew what we were capable of doing with the team we had. ... Obviously, a great yeat - having the best record in baseball - but I think this is going to burn in all of us for a while.”

Closer Drew Storen, who couldn’t protect a two-run lead in the ninth inning sat on a folding chair in front of his locker, chin on is chest with eyes downcast, hardly acknowledging clubhouse manager Mike Wallace, who was crouched in front of him. Finally, Storen nodded and Wallace patted him on the left shoulder like a father consoling a Little Leaguer. Storen had already met with the media, explaining the inexplicable. Finally, Storen stood and turned his chair to face the stall, sat back down and continued to reflect on what had happened in solitude.

“We were right there,” said shortstop Ian Desmond. “We had it. We were good enough to (be) leading in the ninth inning by two runs against the defending world champions, a team that has all the experience in the world and everything else they’ve got going on over there. They just sealed the deal on us. We played with them, we went blow for blow the whole way.”

Well, almost the whole way. The next step would have been a Sunday date with the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS. Instead, the Nationals aren’t quite sure what to do with themselves.

“It’s very difficult,” Rizzo said. “The finality of these playoffs are just that. We don’t know what to do tomorrow. Saturday and we don’t have a game.”

Instead, there are memories the Nationals would probably rather not confront.

“We went father than anybody thought we would,” said principal owner Mark Lerner. “It hurts. It really does. I thought we’d go all the way.”

Before he headed to the interview room to try and make sense of an unfathomable collapse, manager Davey Johnson had met with his team and told them to be proud of themselves and what they’d accomplished, often against the longest of odds. But when he passed by the throng of reporters waiting outside the home clubhouse, Johnson locked eyes with a pair of media members he’s known since his Baltimore days, and shook his head in something between disgust and disbelief.

“I just told them ... it was nothing to hang your head about,” Johnson told reporters later. “It was a great year. We overcame a lot of problems. We proved our worth and we just need to let this be a lesson and have some time - learn from it, have more resolve, come back and carry it a lot farther.”

The Nationals spoke about using the experience as a stepping-off point for 2013, but it’s clear the wounds are still fresh.

“I really liked our chances,” LaRoche said. “It’s not going to happen.”

Once he’d finished his rounds, Rizzo tried to put the unexpected failure in perspective.

“I’m proud of the guys,” he said. “You got to knock the champ out. We had them on the ropes, and we couldn’t knock them out. It’s a testament to them and their ballclub. But I couldn’t be prouder of our guys. It was a great season with a disappointing ending.”

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