Forty-five minutes after the Nationals' loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers had ended on Saturday evening, as players showered and headed home for the night, Pat from D.C. called in to the Nationals' radio post-game show.
He proceeded to say that for the first time since 2005, he'd watched the Nationals lose a game on Saturday that pained him, that tipped one way when it could have tipped another, and for the first time in a long time, that turn of events produced a reaction.
Perhaps there's something to be said for the Nationals in that fact alone, that a 4-3, 13-inning loss to a team that's been in the NLCS the last two years would feel like an opportunity missed, rather than a formality. Whatever the deeper meaning, the immediate result stung the same.
The Nationals lost a game on Saturday where they never led, but erased three Dodgers leads. They went 2-for-15 with runners in scoring position, but pushed one of those runs across in the eighth inning to tie the game off All-Star closer Jonathan Broxton. Ultimately, though, they got two runners thrown out at home plate, and took another run off the board when Nyjer Morgan was tagged out at third in the sixth inning before Craig Stammen could cross home plate. When the Nationals had a chance to wrap up a series win against the Dodgers, that's why this one hurt a little.
"It's aggravating, because like everyone's been saying, we expect to win," right fielder Willie Harris said. "We're not in rebuild mode in our mind in here. We expect to win now."
There's an old saying in baseball that every team is going to win 54 games and lose 54 games, and the season will be decided in the remaining 54. If that's true, the Nationals have won five of the remaining 54 each of the last two seasons. They look like they're on track to be better than that this year, but if by some chance they end up in a playoff race later this season, this will be one of the games that sticks out.
They got seven strong innings from Craig Stammen, who's starting to find a groove after a rocky start to the season. Stammen allowed six hits and three runs in seven innings, all of the damage coming on two home runs from third baseman Casey Blake. But he didn't walk a batter and got a double play just before giving up the second homer to Blake; had he not gotten it, the Nationals couldn't have tied the game in the eighth.
As many turning points as there were that went in the Nationals' favor, though, there were more that didn't, specifically the three outs on the basepaths that cost them runs. None was more damaging than the first time it happened.
With the game timed and two outs in the sixth inning, Morgan launched a base hit to left as Stammen, who'd singled for his second hit of the game. Figuring he'd have a tougher time getting thrown out than Stammen, Morgan tried to stretch his double into a triple and make the Dodgers concentrate on him so Stammen could score. They did that, but when Blake Dewitt took a relay from Xavier Paul and fired to third, Morgan didn't stop so he could get caught in a rundown and let Stammen cross home plate before he made the third out of the inning.
He went hard into third, got tagged out and the inning was over.
"I was being aggressive, but not intelligent," Morgan said. "I was locked in. I had tunnel vision there. I have to be a little smarter in that situation, but still, it was an aggressive play."
Third-base coach Pat Listach, who had a perfect view of the play, didn't try to argue it. He knew Morgan was out, and had no recourse but to watch it happen.
"If they throw the ball home, he walks into third," Listach said. "If they throw the ball to third, he's got to stop and let him cross the plate first."
There were two other plays at the plate, both when the Nationals hit ground balls to third and Blake had time to throw home so Russell Martin could tag the runner. The first came in the seventh inning, with Ian Desmond getting gunned down at the plate on Josh Willingham's grounder.
The second situation came up in the 13th, a half-inning after the Dodgers had taken the lead on Martin's single in front of Morgan, who bobbled the ball on one hop after making a belated decision not to dive for it. Rafael Furcal scored on the play, giving the Nationals one chance to rally in the 13th.
They did, with Morgan nearly tying the game again on a double into the right-field corner that moved Ivan Rodriguez to third. But the Dodgers relayed the ball quick enough that Listach had to change from sending Rodriguez to stopping him, and on Desmond's grounder to third, Blake fired home in time so Martin could barely tag a sliding Rodriguez.
"If the throw is just a hair off, he is going to be safe," manager Jim Riggleman said. "If he stays there, we're not taking a chance to score the run and we're still not in much of a different situation if (Blake) throws the guy out at first. We're standing at third with two outs, which is how the game ended anyway. It was worth the gamble."
But on a day where the Nationals could take a sense of pain as accomplishment, the pain itself was still fresh, for everyone in the clubhouse to Pat from D.C.
"That game today, I think it explains us," Harris said. "That game shows you who we are. We're never going to give up. We had a chance. That's really all you can ask for, is a chance. We had our opportunities. We just couldn't come through."