WASHINGTON -- Dear bitter, anonymous rival Major League Baseball general managers:
Are you happy now? Satisfied? Feeling a warm glow in your bile ducts, the sheer, tingly joy of Schadenfreude running through your spleens?
The lights have gone dark at Nationals Park. The windows in the press box are closed. Because it’s cold. Bitterly so. Winter is coming. Down in the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse, the offseason is already here, courtesy of a stunning come-from-ahead 9-7 Nationals loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday night in Game 5 of National League Division Series.
The room was hushed. No music. Heavy eyelids. Wordless hugs. Shell-shocked players speaking softly, voices like slippers on fresh snow. You should have been there. You would have loved it. Above half of the lockers, protective plastic tarp had hastily been torn down; above the other half, it hung from the ceiling in sad, rolled-up bundles, superfluous as victory champagne. Drew Storen was sitting in a chair, showered and alone. Just sitting. Even the postgame clichés were downhearted. You can’t take anything for granted in this game. You have to play it out. That’s baseball. That’s how things happen sometimes.
Time felt disjointed. “Meet the Press” host David Gregory pumping up the crowd with a pregame, Hulkamania-esque “Let’s play ball!” seemed like eons ago; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey throwing out the first pitch and then pulling off his uniform jacket Superman-style to reveal a Nationals jersey underneath may as well have happened during the Korean War. The whole scene was somber, as hangdog as the fans who started streaming out before the bottom of the ninth inning, beating a disbelieving retreat, as if heading home early would help ease the pain.
“This is my first time feeling this,” said Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki. “It really stinks.”
Of course, this is what you bitter, anonymous GMs wanted. Exactly what you wanted. It’s what one of you told USA TODAY’s Bob Nightengale just the other day, back when the Nationals were on the verge of elimination, pummeled in Game 2 and Game 3. Back when you were enjoying Washington’s righteous smoting at the hands of the just-yet-vengeful baseball gods for having the sheer disrespectful gall to shut down ace Stephen Strasburg near the end of an NL East-winning season, the better to protect a long-term asset -- the freaking nerve! -- followed by Nationals GM Mike Rizzo confidently predicting, “We’ll be back, and doing this a couple more times.”
“I hope [the Nationals] go down in flames,” one of you told USA TODAY. “I hope it takes another 79 years before they get back to the playoffs. That's how strongly I feel about it.”
Great news: You got your wish. The Nationals went down, in flames no less, blowing an early six-run lead, in part by surrendering four runs in the ninth inning. Washington couldn’t capitalize on Bryce Harper’s slump-busting home run and RBI-triple, on two-run homers from Ryan Zimmerman and Mike Morse, on what seemed like a late-game insurance RBI from Suzuki, on a lineup that looked more like the team that finished second in the NL in homers and less like a group that managed only nine runs in their previous four games. Starter Gio Gonzalez and relievers Edwin Jackson and Tyler Clippard pitching their way out of potentially game-tying jams? All for naught. Storen came in, loaded the bases with a pair of walks. A ball went off Ian Desmond’s glove. All hell broke loose.
Meanwhile, the defending champion Cardinals -- the franchise that won four elimination games last postseason and a win-or-go-home wild card game less than two weeks ago -- remain undead.
Bitter, anonymous GMs, don’t you feel invigorated? Like Elizabeth Bathory bathing in virgin blood?
I know this season stung. I mean, seriously … the Nationals? The Franchise
Formerly Known as the Montreal Expos? The lost tribe of Youppi? For most of their abbreviated history, the Nats have been known for two things: uniform misspellings and bad baseball. Not necessarily in that order. The franchise has less tradition than Carlos Beltran’s batting gloves; until recently, it’s had as much chance to contend for a championship as Big Head Teddy Roosevelt had of winning the team’s between-innings presidential mascot races.
So I almost understand. I almost understand how you could react to Rizzo’s self-assurance with such scandalized, fetch-me-my-fainting-couch shock and disdain. I just about get how another one of you could tell USA TODAY that “if we don't win the World Series, I don't care who does. As long as it's not [Washington]. They don't deserve to win it. Not after what they did.”
Yeah. Really. How dare the Nationals do what every other club is supposed to be doing. How dare they … become good. Heck, a general manager might keep his job for something like that.
And for, you know, believing in his team’s ability.
That’s what this was about, wasn’t it? Rizzo speaking out. Rizzo saying the Nationals aren’t a fluke, but rather a budding contender, a team that can afford to sit Strasburg with an eye on the future, a team that will be back, like when the Terminator asked nicely about Sarah Connor at the police station and then went to get his car.
I guess teams that are young and deep and lead the majors in regular season wins aren’t supposed to say that they might be a handful for years to come. I guess that when you rebuild a franchise that recently lost 298 games over three seasons, you’re supposed to sound surprised and dumbstruck and aw-shucksy. I guess that when you have a cooperative relationship with Scott Boras instead of an adversarial one, you should expect blowback, because even though Boras represents good players that you want and need to win, and you're a big-market club with money to spend, your primary concern should be helping other teams keep payroll costs down by practicing informal collusion.
I guess when you run the Nationals, you’re not supposed to sound reasonable. Or realistic.
Bitter, anonymous GMs: Are u still mad, bros? If so, then here’s my unsolicited advice: Savor this loss. Commit it to memory. Call the game footage up on your laptops, put it on permanent loop and give yourselves the “Clockwork Orange” Ludovico treatment. Also, invest in those fainting couches.
Here’s the thing about the press box windows at Nationals Park being closed due to the October chill: It might be the first time that's happened, but it won’t be the last. Rizzo is right. There’s more to come. Strasburg will be back, and the Nationals, too. This is how it usually works in sports. You lose before you win. Hurt makes you work harder. Defeat drives you to improve. Young teams mature. Old teams age out of contention. And Washington is on the right side of the curve.
Don’t take my word for it. Ask Nationals manager Davey Johnson, a man who knows a bit about baseball. A man who might know a bit more about baseball than you do (I know, it's hard to believe). Before the game, Johnson was asked to evaluate his team and their season. He was typically honest. He said it was a year where “a lot of rookies stood up and played out of position,” and some “awfully young pitchers” were “doing the things they are capable of doing right out of Jump Street.”
So how much better can the Nationals get?
“A lot of guys haven’t really hit their stride,” Johnson said. “There’s still a bigger ceiling for a number of players on this club.”
Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler and Harper all basically just completed their first complete big league seasons. Strasburg has yet to enjoy a full, healthy campaign -- and he might be the second-best pitcher on the team behind Cy Young candidate Gio Gonzalez. Even Washington’s fans have room to improve. Throughout the playoffs, they’ve been waving red-colored rally towels, which are great, except most of them wear red clothes, too, which undercuts the typically disorienting blizzard effect.
Next year, I expect white.
Following his Game 4 walk-off home run, Jayson Werth told reporters that he more or less blacked out after the ball left the park, having a “Will Ferrell moment.” Bitter, anonymous GMs, you might want to try that yourselves. Not this postseason. But soon. Because despite your fondest wishes, it won’t take another 79 years for the Nationals to return to the postseason -- or to go farther than the divisional round.
And please, get a fainting couch. For those blackouts. You can order one online. Anonymously, of course.
Otherwise, bros, it’s gonna be a long, bitter rest of the decade.
Sincerely, and on behalf of greater Washington,