ST. LOUIS - One image from the postgame scene in the Nationals clubhouse last night stays with me above all others this morning.
That image is Bryce Harper seated at his locker, staring at nothing in particular. Harper was in full uniform, his feet resting on the wooden beams on either side of his locker. He stayed in that position for nearly 45 minutes after the game, refusing to change out of his clothes and move on from the idea that the Nationals still had a chance at postseason baseball.
“I don’t want to get in the shower or anything,” Harper said.
Baseball players are constantly so focused on that day’s action that it’s tough for them to see the big picture. That’s the case when they’re winning and tunnel vision keeps the focus small - on the opportunity for another win tomorrow. And it’s the case when they’ve been knocked out of the playoff picture with five games still left on the regular season schedule.
The Nats’ chances at the postseason were officially snatched away last night, and while they were aware of that fact, they didn’t really know how to feel about it.
“I guess that hasn’t really sunk in yet,” Ian Desmond said. “I feel like we just lost and it feels the same as it always does.”
The Nationals have known the long odds that they’ve had against them for a couple months now. They’re obviously not blind to the standings and their team’s record.
The overall struggles over the first four months of the season put the Nats in a pretty deep hole, one that they knew would take a massive effort to dig out of. They did a good bit of digging over the last seven weeks, moving from six games under .500 and nine games back in the wild card chase on Aug. 7, to as much as 12 games over .500.
Despite the realization of how far they would need to climb to get back in the postseason hunt, the idea of being eliminated didn’t really seem to hit the Nats until the end, when they dropped a 4-3 loss to the Cardinals last night.
“You never consider it,” Davey Johnson said. “I didn’t consider it. Something good was going to happen here, like it did last year.”
A lot of things went wrong for the Nationals this season. They had injuries that knocked Harper, Wilson Ramos, Jayson Werth and Ross Detwiler out for extended stretches. They had a number of players - Adam LaRoche, Denard Span and Ryan Zimmerman among them - play well below their ability level over the first four months. They struggled getting on base and pushing across add-on runs. Their bench provided very little and their bullpen was inconsistent. They waited too long for Danny Espinosa, Roger Bernadina and Henry Rodriguez to turn things around before making a move.
And yet, despite all that, the Nats could still end up with as many as 89 wins, which is pretty darn impressive.
“Just goes to show us it’s tough to make the playoffs,” LaRoche said. “A lot of things got to go right. You have to play consistent baseball. It’s not easy.”