WASHINGTON -- There was one moment, and best I could tell only one moment, when Nationals Park was as wild and alive and frenzied as all of us had hoped it would be Wednesday. Here it was: The first postseason game in Washington since FDR was in office. Here it was: The one thing in this tempestuous election season that could bring this city together. Here it was: V-E Day for the most surprising team of the 2012 baseball season.
Oh, it was going to be something, right? There would be people kissing in the streets! There would be senators crossing the aisles! There would be Donkeys and Elephants partying like the Berlin Wall had come down again!
Only, no, didn't happen. The game did not allow for that to happen. The St. Louis Cardinals did not allow it to happen. Sure, it was loud and assured and joyous at the beginning, before the beginning, when Frank Robinson threw out the first pitch, when the national anthem was sung, when the Nationals ran on the field. Then the Cardinals scored a run in the first. Then the Cardinals' Pete Kozma -- Pete Kozma, a .236 minor-league hitter who showed up when Rafael Furcal hurt his elbow and decided to be Cal Ripken -- hit a three-run home run in the second inning. That made it 4-0 Cardinals.
And as Kozma's homer sailed into the seats, all the energy and hope and exuberance escaped from the stadium. Numbness replaced it. I cannot remember so much hope and energy disappearing quite so quickly. And I don't think it was so much the score -- teams come back from 4-0.
No, I think it was two other things: One, the speed with which the game had gotten away, and two, the Stephen Strasburg factor.
The blur of falling behind 4-0 is pretty unmistakable and easy to see. The Strasburg Factor, I think, is a bit more complicated. As you and everyone else knows, the Nationals decided to shut down star pitcher Stephen Strasburg after 160 or so innings because he is coming off Tommy John surgery and because the Nationals do not want to risk his future. There have been thousands of things written about this already, and everyone knows where they stand.
But on Wednesday, the Strasburg decision was raw and bare and there for everyone to see. Edwin Jackson started for the Nationals, and there was a lot of concern about that. Jackson tends to be very good or very bad. He rarely plays to the middle. Five times in his career he has thrown a complete game and allowed one or fewer runs, and this includes a no-hitter. Nine times in his career, he has allowed seven or more earned runs. His first start against St. Louis this year, he pitched eight innings and did not allow an earned run. His second start against St. Louis, he got pulled in the second inning after giving up six hits, four walks and nine runs. With Jackson, Wednesday was going to be decisive.
And it was: Jackson gave up four early runs, got knocked all over the park, and the fact that Strasburg was not pitching in the postseason was everywhere, like oxygen or those commercials where people are waiting in line for the iPhone. I'm sure there were people in the stadium sick about Washington possibly getting bumped in the first round of the playoffs without Strasburg ever throwing a pitch. But I'm just as sure that there were people in the stadium sick because EVERYBODY AROUND THE COUNTRY would be bashing the Nationals again for the way they handled Strasburg -- and I know many Nationals fans who don't want to go back to that talk.
Whatever the reason, the energy was zapped. The Nationals had some chances to score in the early innings against Cardinals starter Chris Carpenter -- he really didn't seem to have all that much working. But the chances kept wandering by and the energy did not crest again. That is, until the fifth inning.
In the fifth inning, Washington had the bases loaded with a guy they call "Beast" at the plate. They call Mike Morse the beast because he's 6-foot-5, weighs 245 pounds and has hit 400-foot homers simply with his angry look. And at that instant, the moment was everything any of us had expected. Loud. Psyched. Red towels waving. People stomping and cheering and going nuts. You had this feeling -- for the first time in the game, and probably the last time, too -- that something amazing was about to happen.
* * *
What is a big-game pitcher? You hear people talk about the concept all the time. People talk about these near-mythical big-game pitchers who might normally throw 92-mph fastballs and hard-to-hit sliders but, when the big game calls, suddenly they throw 124-mph fastballs with sliders that literally explode, mid-air, sending yarn dust into the players’ faces.
People talk about big-game pitchers who feast on pressure and binge on tension, big-game pitchers who find their best selves only when the light is brightest and the stage is biggest and the sock is bloodied.
People talk about big-game pitchers as those who don't get too amped up by the moment, who keep their blood temperature cold and their heartbeat slow and execute their game plans coolly, without allowing the magnitude of the moment to shake them.
And, people talk about big-game pitchers as fun but largely invented beings. Was Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson or Curt Schilling a "big-game pitcher?" Sure. You know what? They were awfully good small-game pitchers, too. It usually works that way.
Chris Carpenter is a fully vested "big-game pitcher." Of course, he too is a good small-game pitcher -- Cy Young winner and all -- but it's his big-game disposition that people like talking about. His postseason won-loss record -- 9-2 entering Wednesday's game -- is enough to make him a big-game pitcher. His memorable postseason performances -- overwhelming Detroit in the 2006 World Series, outdueling Roy Halladay in last year's playoffs, allowing two earned runs in each of his World Series starts last year -- are enough to make him one. But there's also this aura he has, the way his teammates and manager look at him.
In July of this year, Carpenter had a rib removed from his body. I'll repeat that: He had a rib taken out. When you have a rib removed, that pretty much takes you out for the season. Adam himself didn't pitch again that year. The Cardinals' manager Mike Matheny knew he was done, except for one thing …
"Don't give up on me," Carpenter told Matheny. "Don't you dare give up on me."
Matheny isn't only Carpenter's manager. He is Carpenter's former catcher. He, like all the Cardinals, have come to see Carpenter as a John Wayne character, someone who isn't weighed down by the rules of time and space that confine the rest of us. Before Wednesday's game, we asked Matheny if he really believed Carpenter would pitch again in 2012.
"If it was anyone but Carp, I would have said, 'No,'" Matheny said. "Anyone but Carp."
So it was Carp on the mound when Mike Morse, the Beast, stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and seemingly everyone in Washington, all at once, thinking: Hey, this might be our time right here.
* * *
So, this was the moment -- the big-game pitcher, the intensity and hope of the crowd, a guy missing a rib, the Beast in full rage, the bases loaded. It was only the fifth inning, but this was the moment, you really couldn't miss it, in the movies it would have played out in 20 minutes of slow motion with dazzling music in the background.
In real life, though, it was just three pitches.
Pitch 1: Carpenter started Morse off with a curveball that broke low and outside. Morse could not check his swing. That was strike one.
Pitch 2: Carpenter threw precisely the same pitch to precisely the same spot, and Morse again started to offer at it, but this time was able to hold back. That was ball one.
Pitch 3: Carpenter threw his best fastball, 92 mph, a little bit up and tailing in, and Morse skied it to right field. That was the third out. And, in many ways, that was the ball game. The Cardinals went on to win, 8-0.
Now what is the story behind the story? Well, you can write a dozen of them. It was Carpenter, the big-game pitcher, miraculously coming back from serious surgery, refusing to give in and imposing his will on Mike Morse. Or it was the Nationals, dwarfed by the intensity and history of the moment failing to come up with the big hit. Or it was the shadows that stretched between home plate and the mound that made hitting difficult (well, for the Nationals). Or it was fate, since it seems like fate became part-owner of the St. Louis Cardinals sometime in August of last year.
Or it was none of those things. We are in a short series now, where every moment is huge, every failure and success is magnified, every fly out to right with the bases loaded is pivotal. The Cardinals lead the series 2-1 and are a victory away from continuing their amazing playoff run. The Nationals need to win the next two games at home or have their astonishing season end bitterly. These short series might not be the fairest way to determine who will win it all. But they do offer thrills. Guaranteed.