Let’s face it, for the fans of 29 teams, the end of the baseball season is hard to take.
To be sure, it’s harder in some cities than in others. Here in Washington, after watching seven regular seasons mercifully conclude with the reality of a losing team, we got not only our first winning season, but our first taste of bittersweet postseason baseball, the emotional roller coaster ride that comes to jarring halt for all but one team. And in less than 24 hours, we soared to the pinnacle of joy and plunged to the deepest depths of agony and despair.
Now it is over. Like the fans of 25 other teams, we are either watching the remaining teams play out the postseason on television, or peeking at scores, not yet ready to look at the game again. Many members of Nationals fan groups on Facebook and other forums are posting Bart Giamatti’s brilliant essay “The Green Fields of the Mind” to console ourselves, much the way animal lovers share “The Rainbow Bridge Poem” to comfort one another on the loss of a beloved pet.
But as the team’s heartbreaking loss in the final game of the National league Division Series grows more distant, and remains just as poignant, we must look back on how we got there, at the memories that made 2012 the best season the Washington Nationals have ever known. What began with the hope that springs eternal every March and April slowly evolved into something more, and by the summer, Nats fans realized that they were rooting for a contender. Then, after the All-Star break, they took off like a shot from Adam LaRoche’s bat, building the best record in baseball and a lead over the Braves in the National League East. Then in September they took a few staggering blows before getting back on their feet and clinching a playoff berth, then the division crown. The playoffs saw them gain a quick lead on the Cardinals, suffer two blowout losses, then win an elimination game in dramatic fashion before falling in Game 5.
Here are some month-by-month highlights:
April: Chad Tracy and Ian Desmond deliver clutch hits in the ninth inning of a 2-1 opening day win over the Cubs, and the Nats go on to take two of three. In the home opener, Gio Gonzalez tosses seven shutout innings and Ryan Zimmerman scores the winning run on a wild pitch for a walkoff win over Cincinnati. Two-days later, Edwin Jackson throws a complete-game two hitter to beat the Reds 2-1 and extend the winning streak to five. Later in the month, the team’s first West Coast road trip goes badly as they lose four straight, including a sweep at the hands of the Dodgers. Matt Kemp hits a walkoff homer to beat the Nats in one game, and Clayton Kershaw shuts them down in another. A 19-year-old rookie named Bryce Harper gets called up earlier than many observers expect and drives in a run in his first game. But the Nats end the month in first place, edging past the Atlanta Braves.
May: The Nats and their fans “take back the park” from Phillies followers who had packed the place in prior seasons, beating the five-time division champions when Wilson Ramos lines a pinch-hit single in the 11th inning to complete a 4-3 comeback victory. Gonzalez goes seven strong innings and Jayson Werth blasts a homer in another win. Even in defeat, the Nats have a laugh as Cole Hamels plunks Harper, only to see him come around and steal home in a 9-3 loss on national TV. Werth breaks his wrist diving for a ball and is taunted by the few Phillies fans in the park, then vows that the Phils will never again parade the Commissioner’s Trophy down Broad Street. The Nats’ bullpen, especially Henry Rodriguez, hits a rough patch in a road trip to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Rodriguez gives up a game-winning homer to Rod Barajas in Pittsburgh and a walkoff grand slam to Joey Votto in Cincy. Harper hits his first major league homer in an 8-5 win over San Diego on May 14, The next day, Stephen Strasburg falls apart in the rain and has problems with :Hot Stuff” in a 6-1 loss to the Padres. The Orioles bullpen shuts down the Nats as Baltimore takes two of three, dropping the Nats back to second place. But the Nats win a laugher in the finale, 9-3 as Strasburg homers. The Nats hit the road and take two of three in Philadelphia to regain the division lead. They blow through Atlanta, sweeping the ailing Braves, before a nightmare ending to the month in a three-game sweep at Miami’s gimmicky new retractable-roof ballpark.
June: Steve Lombardozzi and Harper become the first rookies to hit back-to-back homers, but the Nats lose to Atlanta for the first time and drop into a first-place tie with Miami. They move back into sole possession for the rest of the season the next day with a 7-6, 12 inning win over the Mets. Ross Detwiler, bumped from the starting rotation in favor of Chien-Ming Wang, gets the win in relief. The Nats then romp through a six-game AL East road trip, sweeping Boston and Toronto. Strasburg wins his fifth straight start in a 6-2 victory over the Blue Jays, backed by Harper’s seventh homer. When the underage rookie is asked afterward about his theoretical taste in beer, the phrase “That’s a clown question, bro,” enters the North American vocabulary. The red hot Yankees deal the Nats their first and only home sweep of the season, but Washington gets back on the beam by taking two of three against Tampa Bay to guarantee a winning record in interleague play. Ex-National Joel Peralta is ejected in the eighth inning of a 5-4 loss when the umpires find pine tar in his glove. Rays manager Joe Maddon suggests that Nats manager Davey Johnson got some inside information from Peralta’s former teammates, and the phrase “weird wuss” enters the American lexicon. The Nats take the next two games. After a sweep in Baltimore, a trip to Colorado is just what the Nats’ bats need. They score 35 runs in a four-game split, and they remain one of baseball’s top scoring teams for the next two months.
July: The Nats complete a sweep of the eventual NL West champion San Francisco Giants on “Turn Back the Clock Night,” a tribute to the Nats 1924 World Series championship team. Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa hit back-to-back homers to key the comeback, and the Nats win when the Giants can’t turn a double play on Adam LaRoche’s bases-loaded grounder. Gonzalez and Strasburg each toss a scoreless inning in the All-Star Game in Kansas City, an 8-0 NL romp. Harper walks in his first All-Star at-bat and takes second on a flay ball, but then gets caught off second base in an inning-ending double play. Ian Desmond, named as a reserve, misses the game due to an oblique injury that will keep him out of the lineup for more than a month. Struggles continue in Marlins Park as the Nats and Miami split four games, but Washington rebounds to take two of three from the struggling New York Mets. Jordan Zimmermann moves over .500 at 7-6 by tossing six shutout innings in a4-3 win. In a key series against the Braves, the Nats blow a 9-0 lead with Strasburg on the mound in a 11-10 loss, then drop the first game of a doubleheader the next day to see their lead shrink to a game-and-a-half. But John Lannan, banished to the minors in spring training, comes back to pitch the nightcap and allow two runs over seven innings in a 5-2 win. Ryan Zimmerman hits two homers in a 9-2 romp the next day to send the Braves away having gained no ground. The Nats move on to win three of four in Milwaukee. Michael Morse hits game-tying a two-run homer in the ninth and a game-winning two-run double in the 11th inning of an 11-10 win.
August: The Nationals actually begin their best month of the season with a 7-1 loss to the Phillies. But after that, they surge to the top of the National League and all of baseball. Werth returns from his wrist injury and Detwiler throws seven shutout innings in a 3-0 blanking of the Phils the next day. As the Nats take three of four from Miami, they trade for Oakland catcher Kurt Suzuki, dealing minor league receiver David Freitas. Danny Espinosa homers to key a six-run eighth inning rally in a 10-7 win over the Marlins that will set the Nats off on their longest winning streak of the season. The eight-game run includes a four-game sweep in Houston. Espinosa strokes a go-head RBI double, and Roger Bernadina’s leaping catch in the bottom of the 12th inning saves a 3-2 win and gives the Nats the best record in the major leagues. The next night, Gio Gonzalez has his first career homer and fist nine-inning complete game in a 4-3 win. Even a 7-4 loss in Arizona can’t slow the Nats down much. They sweep the Giants in San Francisco, including a 14-2 romp over NL ERA leader Ryan Vogelsong. Espinosa and Bernadina have four hits apiece to pace a 21-hit attack. The Nats’ lead over the second-place Braves increases to 5 1-2 games. Back at home, they take two of three from the Mets and two of three from Atlanta, going six games up with six weeks to play. A three-game skid in Philadelphia and a shutout loss in Miami leave some fans nervous, but the Nats bust out against the hot-hitting Cardinals, taking three of four in a series that extends into September. Desmond hits a go-ahead RBI single in the seventh as the Nats beat the Cards 4-3 for their 81st win, matching their most since moving to Washington in 2005.
September: On Labor Day, the Nats guarantee themselves their first winning season by beating the Cubs 2-1. Detwiler pitches seven shutout innings, and LaRoche hits his 25th homer. The Nats go on to sweep four from Chicago, scoring 31 runs. The lead over Atlanta extends to 7 1-2 games with 23 to play. The Marlins come to town and rough up Strasburg, shelling him for five runs on six hits in three innings in a 9-7 win over the Nats. The next day, the team announces that Strasburg will not pitch again this season, having reached the innings limit in his recovery from Tommy John surgery in 2010. The next day, after a two-hour, 33-minute rain delay, Werth homers in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game, and Giancarlo Stanton drops pinch-hitter Corey Brown’s fly ball in the tenth to give the Nats a 7-6 win. After a three-game sweep of the Mets, the Nats head to Atlanta with a chance to bury the Braves, but came up short, losing three straight and watching their lead shrink to 5-1-2 games with 14 to play. But four nights later, the Nats beat the Dodgers 4-1 to clinch their first preseason berth. A low-key celebration ensues. The Brewers come to town and Gonzalez allows two unearned runs over seven innings in a 10-4 victory to become the first 20-game winner in the majors this season and the first in a Washington uniform since Bob Porterfield in 1953. The Nats take two of three in Philadelphia to send the Phillies to the brink of elimination from the postseason race. Harper hits his 21st homer, Morse clubs a pair to give him 16 for the year, and Gonzalez wins No. 21 in a 7-3 victory. The month ends in frustration as the division crown eludes the Nats in a weekend visit to St. Louis. In the only win of the three-game set, Morse hits a first inning grand slam, but the Cards come back against Zimmermann and Drew Storen to send the game into extra innings. Suzuki has a two-run single in the 11th for the win. Harper ends the month by hitting his 23rd homer in a 10-4 loss, giving him the most by a teenager since Tony Conigliaro hit 24 in 1964.
October: In the month when legends are made, the Nats know their greatest joy and deepest sorrow. On Oct. 1, 2012, the Nats clinch their first National League East title when the Braves lose to the New York Mets 2-1. Even though they fall to the Phillies 2-0, Washington players celebrate, spraying champagne and beer through the locker room and into the adoring crowd. But over the next two days, the Nats earn their celebration by beating the Phillies twice to clinch the best record in the National League and all of baseball. LaRoche hits his 33rd homer and drives in his 100th run in a 4-2 victory in the penultimate game, and Jackson becomes the fifth Nats starter with double-digit wins and Ryan Zimmerman hits his 25th homer in a 5-1 win in the regular season finale.
The fun continues in Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Cardinals. Tyler Moore’s two-run single off Marc Rzepczynski in the eighth inning gives the Nats a 2-3 win, and a Washington team its first postseason win since 1933. The Cardinals dominate the next game in St. Louis 12-4 and the first in Washington 8-0, setting up elimination game for the Nats. Game 4 is a tense, pitching battle as Detwiler allows just one unearned run, a Carlos Beltran sacrifice fly, and Kyle Lose allows only LaRoche’s solo homer. Zimmermann strikes out the side in the seventh, Tyler Clippard does the some in the eighth, and Storen fans two of the four batters he faces in the ninth. The St. Louis bullpen holds the Nats in check until the top of the ninth, when Werth caps an epic, 13-pitch at bat by sending a ball soaring into the Cardinals bullpen, lifting the Nats to a 2-1 victory and sending the crowd of 44,392 into pandemonium.
The next night, with a trip to the NL Championship series on the line, the Nats come out slugging. Werth doubles, Harper triples and Zimmerman hits a two-run homer in the first. Two innings later, Harper homers, Zimmerman doubles and Morse blasts a two-run shot for a 6-0 lead. But Gonzalez allows a run in the fourth and struggles with his control in the fifth, allowing runs to score on a wild pitch and a walk. Jackson walks two and allows a run in the seventh and Clippard surrenders a home run to Daniel Delscalso in the eighth. Meanwhile, the Cardinals bullpen is silencing the Nationals’ bats, retiring 10 straight before Espinosa walks in the eighth. Suzuki drives him in for a 7-5 lead going into the ninth. Storen allows a leadoff double in the ninth to Beltran but retires the next two. He has a full count on Yadier Molina but can’t get strike three, walking him. One strike away against David Freese as well, but Storen lest him off the hook and loads the bases. A two-run single by Delscalso ties the game, and another two-run single by Pete Kozma puts the Cards ahead 9-7, silencing the once-screaming throng of 45,966. After a quiet bottom of the ninth, the Washington Nationals’ 2012 season is over.