ST. LOUIS - Minutes after his team had been mathematically eliminated from the playoff picture, Davey Johnson held back tears as he discussed the Nationals’ dreams of postseason baseball coming to an end.
Johnson, the Nats’ 70-year-old skipper who is in his final season at the helm of this team, spoke evenly, and his voice didn’t break at any point during his session with reporters, but you could see the sadness on his face.
The Nationals’ 4-3 loss to the Cardinals coupled with wins by the Reds and Pirates zapped any hope of a miracle in the season’s final week, and now only five more regular season games sit between the Nats and the offseason, this in a year when this organization had such lofty goals.
“I don’t feel too good,” Johnson said. “We gave it a good fight. We just came up short. It was going to be a tough haul, but I’m proud of the guys. We battled. And now we’re spoilers. It’s not over for us. We still have a say in this thing. But it’s tough. You put the uniform on to win, and we didn’t get it done. So I feel bad for everybody.”
A slow start to the season frustrated the Nats, and they sat just one game above .500 at the All-Star break. They then lost their first six games out of the break, but players and coaches remained optimistic throughout the down times that things would eventually improve.
The improvement came, and it came in a big way. The Nats have now gone 30-13 in their last 43 games, including tonight’s loss. But it just wasn’t enough.
“We dug our own hole, and we just couldn’t dig out of it,” Johnson said. “Now we can make it miserable for somebody else. ... We didn’t do the things we were capable of doing early, and we came back strong. But that’s baseball. I love those guys. Great talent, great makeup. We just didn’t get it done.”
Tonight, the Nats saw their shot at the postseason end in an abrupt fashion. They entered action yesterday with the possibility of moving to within three games in the wild card chase, if things broke their way. Coming into today’s action, the Nats still hoped that they’d be able to run the table and get some help from either the Pirates or the Reds and sneak into the dance.
But wins from both of those teams, and another Nats loss to the Cardinals (who they still haven’t beaten since Game 4 of the National League Division Series) brought it all to an end rather quickly. In an 11-minute span, the Pirates won in a dramatic finish, the Reds won on a walk-off, and the Nats fell to St. Louis.
“I really wasn’t paying that much attention (to the out-of-town scoreboard),” Johnson said. “I thought we had a good chance to win this ballgame, if somebody gets a hit here and there. But (Adam) Wainwright was tough. He pitched a heck of a ballgame. You’ve got to tip your hat to him. They’ve got a heck of a ballclub. They haven’t clinched anything yet, either. They eliminated us last year from the playoffs. I’d like to make this road not easy for them.”
The Nationals made things interesting over these last handful of weeks, climbing back into the postseason discussion after all that went wrong over the first four months of the season. That stretch might validate that the Nats have the talent necessary to compete at a very high level, but it doesn’t ease the sting of what happened today.
“It never makes it easy,” Johnson said. “Like I say, we expect to win, and when you don’t do it ... and there’s 1,000 different reasons why we didn’t. We had a few little holes and sometimes the pressure of repeating is a heavy burden, but I thought the guys handled it pretty good. We just didn’t do the things we did last year. It’s that simple. ...
“I’m not worried about the organization. I think the organization’s in great shape. We fixed some problems that we had early on going into the season. I still like the balance of this ball club now. I think going forward it’s going to be very positive. And I think these last five games we need to make it miserable for some other clubs.”
Then, his chat with reporters over, Johnson quietly made his way into his office in the visitors’ clubhouse at Busch Stadium, poured himself a glass of wine and sat down with his coaches, readying for another game that will come tomorrow.